So the news tells me August 9 is National Book Lover’s Day, and while my first response is curiosity—isn’t every day a good day to be a book lover?—I realize the point is to get people to put down their usual hobby and go pick up a book. HuffPost has some suggestions on how to celebrate from years past, the Orlando Sentinel gives a shout out to the area’s indie bookstores, and all sorts of retailers are figuring out how to turn this into a sales opportunity. (I would have, too, if I’d known about it in advance.)
But since the spirit of the holiday seems to lie in acknowledging the power and passion books spark in us, I’m reflecting on a few of the books that have most excited and intrigued me. The lists is eclectic and in no way complete, but roughly chronological. Here are some of the books that made a lasting impression:
Anne was a first for me in a lot of ways: my first orphan; my first country girl; my first redhead; the first unusual, imaginative, bookish heroine I identified with so entirely; and the first fictional character who showed me how I wanted to grow up. Anne’s incredible and wide-ranging imagination (remember Ophelia?), even weirder than my own, made me unafraid of having and taking refuge in my own vividly colored interior world. Anne’s honesty and story-telling power (remember the tale she made up about dropping Marilla’s brooch in the river?) showed me what it was to have integrity of character. I took for granted I would go to college because Anne did. I have a pearl for an engagement ring because that’s what Anne wanted (she’s always cried when at her happiest, remember? Though I did not marry a man named Gilbert).
After Anne, I bought every book of L.M.’s I could find, including, when I became a writer myself, The Alpine Path. I didn’t identify so much with Emily of New Moon or Pat of Silver Bush, but I fell in love with Kilmeny of the Orchard. I was enchanted by The Story Girl and P.E.I. I have yet to visit the Island, but I will someday. I have all of these books on a special shelf, and I will share them with my daughter someday. Or maybe buy her copies of her own. And I have a review copy of Sarah McCoy’s Marilla of Green Gables on my nightstand that I simply can’t wait to read.
Yes, I proudly admit myself to the club of writers who found Little Women a formative experience. Unlike the general run of writers, though, I did not most identify with Jo, the spirited tomboy who scribbled in the attic and had notions of professional success, even though I too loved to write. No, the little woman who called to me was Meg, the eldest, trying so hard to be proper and likeable, trying to do everything as she ought, feeling in charge of everyone and everything, and wishing she could be fashionable and attractive because that’s what her society so clearly valued. One of these days I’ll reread Little Women, and it will be interesting to see who I identify with now—Jo? Marmee? Someone else?
If you too love Little Women, you will also love Anne Boyd Rioux’s biography of the novel, Meg, Jo, Beth, & Amy. Find my review of that delightful book on femmeliterate.
The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Proof I was not reading all female-centric domestic dramas is my long love affair with The Lord of the Rings. I started reading The Hobbit in grade 3 and remember finishing the series in junior high. For a while I considered going all-in on the Tolkien mythology, but these books were satisfying enough. The arduous and seemingly hopeless task taken on by the least likely person; the strange and eccentric characters he met along the way; the clear-cut battle between good and evil, and the sense that magic and mystery had already been largely leached from the world, and we lived in a pale modernity. I did notice that all the women were beautiful, pale, and either passive or entirely absent, so LOTR marks the first fictional world I wrote my own character into. I don’t recall her name now, but she was a combination of elf and ranger, very brave and resourceful, tough and witty, and Aragorn adored her wildly in a distantly worshipful fashion. Aragorn was my first fictional character crush and, along with King Arthur and Han Solo, one of my longest-lasting. Viggo Mortenson played him just as dark, brooding, sexy, and strong as the character I’d imagined in my head, though my Aragorn was much less travel-stained.
Part of my Jane obsession was that I chose this novel to read with care and report on for my junior-year advanced English class, but mostly my obsession was with Jane’s passionate and willful nature, her tendency to feel things quite deeply, her unconventional love affair, and Brontë’s unmatchable prose. This book still springs to mind when anyone asks me to name my “favorite” book because of the profound impression reading it had on me. I felt so many times that Charlotte had described *exactly* something I had felt or thought or noticed, and while she did it in language that never would have occurred to me, it was language I wanted to absorb, think in, write in myself. There’s little wonder I fell hard for Mr. Rochester (see Aragorn, above) as the violent-tempered, brooding hero.
This novel made me realize that I, too, wanted my prose to have the effect on readers of making them identify completely, inhabit the book’s world, feel wonderfully and almost suffocatingly immersed. It doesn’t surprise me at all that, when I started writing historical fiction, the characters who stepped into my imagination came from 19th century England.
My favorite biography of Charlotte’s, if anyone’s asking, is Claire Harman’s, published in the US as A Fiery Heart. And my favorite screen Rochester, along with my favorite Jane, is and will remain Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. Don’t ask me how many times I watched that movie in college, because I never kept count. I do know it helped me survive a great deal.
Lest I appear literary, let me confess here and now that my gateway to historical romance (the bodice rippers my mom called “smut books”) was my purchase in 8th grade of Silver Angel by Johanna Lindsey. I picked it up off the paperback rack at Farm & Fleet while my dad was out buying hardware or tires or some heavy machinery, and after I read it greedily and found out one of my best friends had a love of romance novels that she hid from her mother, too, I spent all the time in high school that I could have spent reading real literature reading these instead. They were my escape, and a necessary one. Through college I read tons of these, which I bought from the half-price bookstore smelling faintly of tobacco, and to let off steam I wrote several of my own, which have never been published and for good reason. Then, when I moved to graduate school to become a “real” writer, I sold back all of my trashy paperbacks to the bookstore, partly because I didn’t want them to be seen on my shelves, and partly because I didn’t want to move them. I still read historical romances as my guilty escape, though, and continue to buy back my favorite Lindseys when I find them on the used bookstore shelf.
My favorite high school English teacher, Ms. Scheide, recommended this book to me, and I spent the summer I turned seventeen reading it. Thank God. It cemented my fascination for King Arthur, but it also cemented my idea that women characters—like women in real life—could be resourceful, powerful, tormented, passionate, ambitious in pursuit of their own goals, AND be in love, successfully or otherwise. It introduced me to historical fantasy, still one of my favorite genres, and it led me to spend the rest of that summer, and several successive summers, drafting my own epic Arthurian tome, first a huge rip-off/MOA fan fic and then gradually reaching into my own ideas and obsessions. It’s around my office somewhere, and someday, when I fell I’ve become a powerful enough writer, I too will take my own stab at the Arthurian matter. I’ve never pointed to Arthur, or Tolkien, or Marion specifically as my inspirations to study medieval literature and become a medievalist by profession, but I wouldn’t deny it if someone wants to argue them as a strong guiding influence.
In the fall semester of my senior year of college, my sister died of cancer, and in my final spring semester, numb, battered, and not knowing how I was going to survive, I read Written on the Body for my English lit class. It helped save me. Here was a narrator (I made her a woman, because I could identify more with a woman narrator) immersed in, ravaged, torn apart by the loss, to cancer, of someone she deeply and entirely loved. This book gave me a language with which to frame my grief, and I can still quote the chunks I memorized to help me articulate and try to breathe through my pain. I’ve read more Winterson since then and love her prose wildly and deeply. In fact I’ve taught Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit a couple of times. But it’s Body that sent air to me when I was drowning, and I’ll never forget that.
After I quit my post-college consulting job and worked at a bookstore while I figured out what I really wanted to do with my life, I got to read brand new books for free. I remember The Hours as the first book of fiction since Jane Eyre and Written on the Body that made me read slowly, carefully, hungrily. I wanted the experience to last and last. It was simply some of the most beautiful writing I’d ever read. After I got to graduate school and started studying writing for real, I could appreciate what Cunningham had learned from and borrowed from Virginia Woolf. But the book on its own was so singular, so painful, so beautiful, so resonating, that it stayed with me for a long, long time.
In my early 20s, while I tended to go through boyfriends fairly quickly, I also tended to leave each of those short-lived and usually painful relationships with a good book. One boyfriend left me his volume of Ken Wilbur, which I kept for years; another introduced me to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; one bought me The Memoirs of Cleopatra, another reason historical fiction is my favorite genre. And one loaned me his copy of Lorrie Moore’s Like Life. I never gave it back. I didn’t actually get around to reading it until the summer I moved to Tallahassee for graduate school, and once I did, I realize what I was doing there: I had come to learn to write short stories like Lorrie Moore. This involved imitating her endlessly until I found my own voice, and it’s largely due to her influence in this collection that so much of my early work was in second person, including “A Lesson in Manners.” I still don’t write anything like Lorrie Moore, and I’ve given up on the idea of having her career or her impact on the landscape of American letters. I still love reading her work, though.
I read parts of what became this book while in creative writing workshops with Kimberly at Florida State University, and I was impressed then with her graceful, powerful prose. It seems slightly unfair to highlight this book in particular when so many of my colleagues from FSU and Cornell have published amazing books, and maybe I’ll devote a future blog post to them. But What Is Visible came out about the time I was recovering from the acute, chronic, prolonged episode of insomnia I had for months after my son’s birth, and it was the first “real” book I could read with any concentration or enjoyment. It reminded me that I too wanted to write and had at one time known how to do it. And it’s an amazing book. It’s sarcastic, it’s witty, it’s heart-breaking, it’s astonishing, it’s cruel, and it’s beautifully written. I knew from workshop that Kimberly had what it took to be a “real” writer, and someday, I’m hoping I will, too.
So there it is: a short list of books that have touched, shaped, and influenced me likely more than I even realize. I love that this list is so varied. I’ve never regretted a single moment I spent reading a book, even when it took me far away from the “real” world. I love what books do for me, the writing and reading of them. This is more than a hobby or a profession; it’s something deeply intertwined with how I live, function, understand the world, and survive in it. What books do you most love, dear reader? I love to add to my to-read list.