Today – September 6th – is National Read a Book Day. And on this occasion, I’m sharing with you 30 books that changed me.
These are the books that exposed me to new things (like about racial passing in Nella Larsen’s Passing), changed the way I felt about a subject or what I knew about the subject (like about death and dying in Ann Lamott’s Hard Laughter), or seemed to push the conventions of literature (like the way Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy experiments with structure and narrative voice). These are the books that made me say, “What? A book a can do THAT?!?!”
For most of these works, though, I don’t remember the exact plot or the details that made them so impressive. For some of these books, I bet the timing was what mattered. When I read Crime and Punishment, for example, it was right after high school. And I read it for fun. I think I was pretty proud of myself for reading a Dostoevsky for leisure. That made me an official adult.
Though I don’t remember the details, I remember the sensation. I remember the sense of awe inspired by Waiting for Godot and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. These books blew me away with their deep investigations of humans – about who we are, what we want, what we believe, what we lack, and what we could be (both beautiful and hideous).
I remember feeling very grown up after reading books like The Laramie Project and Middlesex. These books introduced me to the things that happen in the world to real people that I might otherwise have been shielded from.
I remember feeling envious when reading works like Playing in the Dark and Between the World and Me. These are the books that showed me what a human mind can think through and what a human mind can then articulate into language. The envy comes from recognizing these writers’ genius as well as the fact that I will never achieve that.
I remember the labor that went into studying Paradise Lost and Macbeth. So much to excavate and discover – again and again – in pouring over works like those. And the sense of accomplishment that comes from cracking the code in some small way to understand the text.
I also remember specific lines from these books that stay with me. Like “There is no story that is not true” from Thing Fall Apart. Like “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” from The Things They Carried. And these unforgettable words: “Let me imagine … what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith, let us say” from A Room of One’s Own – and I never forgot about Judith Shakespeare.
Oh, and of course – I remember the laughing and the crying. Really laughing out loud while reading Me Talk Pretty One Day. And really sobbing while reading The Kite Runner.
My literature students are writing this week about why we read and study literature. As for me, I read because I want to be changed. Even in some small way. By the time I read the last page of the book I want to feel a little different and be a little better than when I started the book.
Why do you read?