I recently read an article about five essential books every “lady” should read. I put lady in quotes because the article was not clear what the author meant by that word. Visions of fancy, white gloves with buttons and feathered hats and Vera Bradley bags fluttered through my head when I saw the word, and I expected books like Pride and Prejudice and Middlemarch to be on her list; however, it was actually quite a diverse little list, even including feminist titles (gasp!). It got me thinking…
People ask me for book recommendations all the time. I mean, all the time. Even strangers–when the lamp suitcase for our daughter’s jaundice was delivered a couple of weeks ago, the delivery man saw our living room bookcase and started conversation about reading, which ended in his asking me for recommendations. To me, it was an impossible question: “Even though I’m a perfect stranger, can you recommend a book that you enjoyed on a personal level that you think I would like?” All I knew about him was that he was in his 50s, he had been delivering these lamps for more than 30 years, and he had a killer beard. The pressure to recommend a title that would change his life and add some spice to the monotony of delivering lamp suitcases to new babies caused me to fold: “Oh…I don’t know…there are so many good books out there…”
Thankfully, he didn’t pursue it and instead he started talking about Don Quixote; I muttered a feeble reference to “Man of La Mancha” and then he cordially took his leave.
I find the task of recommending books nearly impossible; to me, books are so personal. They are like friends (but not in a weird Brick Heck kind of way) in that I form a specific relationship to each one depending on what’s going on in my life, and a certain attachment develops for whatever personal reason. I recently recommended a book to my own sister–I just KNEW she’d love it–only to find out her response was, “meh.” I felt lame and like I had no discernment–much like when you make a new friend that you adore only to have none of your other friends like her and then you find out that she really only befriended you to recruit you to sell Amway.
Anyway, I liked the idea of a list of must-read books for ladies, but before I get to that point, I thought maybe I’d simply post a list of five books that ignited and encouraged my love of reading–books that made me want to read them again and pick up other books as well.
The first is Ramona the Pest. My older sister recommended the Ramona books when I was in first grade; I was not interested in reading, and she couldn’t understand that. She made it her mission to help me find something I loved, and she did. I gobbled up all the Ramona books–she was the first character I could relate to on a deep, personal level. When Ramona raised her hand in school and asked about Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel going to the bathroom, I felt like I had met my soulmate.
In fifth grade after reading the Fudge books, I came across Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. I am sure that a huge percentage of women of a, ahem, certain age would include this on their lists of influential books. Having a mother who laughed at me when she read my note asking for a “braw” and thinking that maxi pads were for women who couldn’t control their bladders, I needed Margaret. Everything I know about increasing my bust and strapping on a menstrual belt comes from Judy Blume.
When I was 13 and bored and too cool for school, I picked up my sister’s copy of Jane Eyre and read it while on family vacation. It was not the first grownup book I had read, but it was the first grownup book that thrilled me to my toes–it appealed to me on many levels. There was the sad orphan story, the scary woman in the attic story, the passionate love story, the tragic fire story. Etc. This book gave me the confidence to move from books such as Anne of Green Gables to books with more mature themes.
In college the first time around, I had a professor who was mean. Super mean–like, write-nasty-comments-on-your-paper or make-fun-of-your-poetry-in-front-of-the-entire-class mean. She was so mean and nasty that a couple of years ago when I heard she was dying of pancreatic cancer, I couldn’t send a get-well note–everything I composed in my head was mocking and included the word “Pulitzer,” which she pronounced “Pooooo-lit-ser.” But other than scar me for life, the other thing she did was introduce me to Toni Morrison. Never before (and maybe never again) had I read such a powerful book as Beloved, and that summer I read everything that Morrison had written to that point. I can’t possibly recap the book, much less my feelings about the book, in one sentence, so instead I’ll tell you to read it if you haven’t.
I realize I’m listing two books here, but they lent to the same purpose at the same time. I was 23 or 24 and had gone back to college to finish my degree. I was learning how to truly critique literature–not just finding symbolism and foreshadowing, etc.–under the teaching of a challenging professor who was never impressed by anyone or anything. I trembled each Wednesday as I turned in my papers on whatever book we had read that week–they always came back marked in red. Then one week, not only did I actually get an A, but the professor had made copies of my paper on The House of the Seven Gables to hand out and discuss with the class. That was the moment I knew I had found my calling as a critical reader. I knew for the first time that I had something intelligent to say and maybe I could have new ideas. That’s the same semester that I started reading literary criticism and rather than being confused or bored, I felt my brain light up with appreciation of critics’ insight, and I started having more and more original ideas of my own when critiquing pieces of literature. And The Madwoman in the Attic was the first essay I read that excited me. I went on to write three senior theses in college (one on Jane Eyre) and then continue my research in feminist criticism in graduate school.
I HAVE to ask–what are the books that turned you into a reader?? What books influenced you the most and made you love reading??