I’m not sure if teenagers fall in love with books anymore, unless they are weird. The thirteen year old girls who are self-proclaimed Shakespeare lovers do (you know the type: they already pronounce theater with re at the end, they already dress like an aging librarian, their first love, at age twelve, was Mr. Darcy), but I don’t think the normal ones do. Plenty of normal kids loved Harry Potter so much they read it under the table in social studies and again–twice–over summer break, and sure, lots of millennials say Divergent and The Hunger Games changed their lives and made them want to read, but I’m talking about loving books, books written for grown ups, all books, even the ones they didn’t like.
But I did. It was the 80s, and I was a fairly normal kid; I pronounced theater normally and thought Mr. Darcy was overrated. But Lord, I loved books. I loved their look and smell and the weight of them, from the garish, brightly colored paperbacks that smelled like pharmaceuticals, to the old leather bound copies of Jane Eyre and The Count of Monte Cristo that smelled like dust and sour milk. They were my friends, my secret comrades. I loved all of them, even the ones I hated, like Catch 22 and Animal Farm. I’m not the first person to say books were my safe place, my escape from hurt feelings, boring teachers and long bus rides. They were also my way of stepping into the adult world to figure out people, what made them love and hate and aspire, argue and despair and yearn and get married or decide not to.
I loved nonfiction too–any book really, especially if it looked old or the cover felt nice in my hands. Throughout most of ninth grade I carried around a copy of poetry by Byron (The only one I ever really read was She Walks in Beauty) and Selected Works of Galileo. I was fascinated by the stars, though not enough to actually learn about astronomy, and mainly I liked Galileo’s works because I liked the idea of being someone who carried around a book about stars. (I experimented with dark eye makeup that year, too, but it didn’t work out.) Fiction was my main obsession, though. I came home from school and went to my books (though not my school books) the way some kids in the eighties spent entire afternoons playing video games or listening to Duran Duran or talking on telephones for hours, the curly pea-green or golden cords tethering them to the wall.
I hesitate to write paragraphs about the books that moved and shaped me and taught me to think and write and be myself, because it seems a little precious. (It is not lost on me that using the word precious in this way–not as in valuable but as in affected and self-focused–is, in itself, precious. But I can’t think of another word that is right.) I was at a party last month, and I should say first that most of the guest were literary-types, and I heard someone say, “The other day while I was reading Proust…” and I thought, Lord, please let me never sound like that. But I have now had three or four friends ask me, plead with me in one case, to write about the books I have loved, as an adolescent and all the way up to now. Not in a list, but “more of an essay.” Books that branded my brain enough that occasionally I still think of them or their main character, even if they were purchased from the checkout line of a grocery store. (I’m sure that guy who reads Proust for fun never bought a book in the checkout line at a grocery store.)
So here they are, in chronological order, meaning the order that I read them beginning at about age thirteen. What is missing are the books I loved as a very little girl, and almost any book I ever had to read for school. And of course of the ones that are here, some were deeply meaningful because I was going through something as small as a high school friend being unkind to something as large as the death of my mother. You never know with books; they are like strangers that walk across your path: sometimes you forget them immediately and sometimes you realize later that they came to save you.
I’ll begin with my Madeleine L’Engle phase, and I’m not talking about A Wrinkle in Time. I didn’t even like A Wrinkle in Time, except the parts where Meg and Calvin have kind of a moment and he takes her hand. I stumbled on Madeline L’Engle when I read Ilsa (see more on that here:) and a little paperback called And Both Were Young. It was your typical lonely-girl-in-a-boarding-school story; she was misunderstood, and a boy (who was both athletic and intellectual!) came along and taught her to ski and saw her real beauty, especially when she took off her glasses (surprise!). It was an artsy, intellectual book, in a middle-school kind of way.
That book got me searching for anything by L’Engle I could get my hands on, including the series about a big family called the Austins. They were boisterous and wicked smart, and the youngest–the pretty one–was selfish and vain but they loved her anyway. The main character in these books, Vicky Austin, grew up, traveled abroad, solved mysteries and fell in love, and made all the bad choices that sometimes come with falling in love very young, if you know what I mean. That was an eyeopener at age thirteen, I can tell you. But L’Engle, with her tesseracts and regenerating starfish arms, renewed my realization that that science could be beautiful and awe-inspiring and not incongruous to literature. I asked for a telescope for Christmas that year (and a neon yellow sweater and a Wham album on cassette). If Dava Sobel had been writing then, I’d have been her biggest fan. I picked up the Austin Chronicles recently and skimmed them, and thought the 70s intellectual element was too heavy handed, but they were great stories.
Then there was my Victorian novel phase, around age fourteen, where I reveled not only in the descriptions of the English countryside and the desperately romantic plots, but in the fact that I could actually read and understand these very grown up literary books. I purposely dropped my copy of Wuthering Heights three times in front of a substitute math teacher I had a crush on, so that he might pick it up and say “Wow, you’re reading this?” and be impressed by my maturity and sophistication. Being a math teacher, he picked it up without looking and said, “Uh, you dropped this,” until the third time when he looked at me like I had a disability of some kind, and started speaking louder whenever addressing me.
I remember liking Jane Eyre and Middlemarch around the time my family moved to a new state and I knew no one. It took me over a year to make any real friends, so I figured I might as well be a girl who drank tea after school and read Jane Eyre. But my favorite was Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which taught me that the handsome men are sometimes scoundrels (this idea having not been introduced in Disney movies yet) and the nice men are sometimes weak, and basically a girl had better be smart and never fall asleep in the woods. (I had to read that part three times to make sure I understood correctly what Alec did to Tess. Could that be in a book this old?)
Then there was my southern fiction phase, beginning around age fifteen. It started with Pat Conroy, whose Prince of Tides I picked up at a bed and breakfast I stayed at with my parents. If you don’t know that book, it involves an abusive father, a suicide attempt, a rape and a tiger eating someone (at least it was the bad guy), yet it has all the lyrical language, nostalgia for the south and haunting beauty southern fiction is supposed to have. But holy cow. That one grew me up a bit. I would not want my own daughter reading it at age fifteen, but my parents had gotten used to seeing the Victorian novels in my hand the year before and decided I had good judgement, and stopped paying any attention to what I was reading. I also read The Great Santini, which temporarily made me think all Marines were abusive jerks, until I realized that a few of my dad’s friends were Marine officers, all of them kind, funny family men. But that father character… wow. He made me think about husbands, and what to avoid. I don’t own a dog, but to this day I can’t look at a can of dog food without thinking of serving it to a person you loath and passing it off as dinner.
Thankfully, I moved on to Anne Rivers Siddons novels, still southern fiction but gentler, and with more complicated, less traumatized characters. I read every single one two or three times, beginning with either Sweetwater Creek or Nora, Nora. Siddons is famous for capturing southern, aristocratic society in the 1050s and 60s, but she’s just as good at capturing the confusion, angst and loneliness of being twelve or thirteen. Being from Colorado, I was baffled and captivated by her descriptions of the culture of Atlanta back then, and Siddons was the first to open my eyes to the civil rights movement, how that went down and what it meant to the “colored” people who lived it. I understood that her stories were fiction, and she was white, so maybe this part wasn’t quite right, or was hyperbolic or one-sided, but mostly she got it right, whereas my history textbook taught me facts, which amounted to absolutely nothing meaningful.
I still read Siddons’ older novels sometimes (the newer ones have an older-gal, chick-lit vibe I don’t care for) and they seem dated now, but they make me draw in a sharp breath of nostalgia for a time and place I never lived in. In retrospect, I see that her novels are a bit like paintings by Thomas Kinkade; real heavy handed with the brush–all those bright colors!–but your eye is sure drawn to them. They make me see all over again the bittersweet dichotomy of something–or someone–being very flawed and very beautiful. (Hey Proust-guy? I actually just said bittersweet dichotomy. But it’s not as bad as what you said.) Or even just problematic and beautiful, which pretty much sums up marriage and motherhood and parenting and parents and religion and growing old and death.
Also Southern fiction taught me it is never a good idea to fall in love with your first cousin.
Eventually I went to college and majored in history because I was afraid if I majored in English I would never get a job. I thought with history, at least I could work in a museum or go around to schools impersonating Eleanor Roosevelt or something. But I did minor in English, and I had to read a bunch of stuff I don’t remember. I think I read Homer, Milton, Donne and Goethe, and I have a vague recollection of a terrible group project wherein we acted out Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children. (I can’t even remember which character I played, but I rang a bell and tried to look hungry, and there was a boy whose character, in my memory, was called Swiss Cheese. I just Googled that and it’s true, and the plot sounds horrendous.) This is to say that mostly I don’t remember the stuff I was made to read, except for the Shakespeare, which made it all worth it.
After college I found that I was a real live grown up with an apartment, and once again I could read anything I wanted. My friends were all reading John Grisham and Stephen King if they were reading at all, but by now I was an English teacher and I felt it unseemly for a teacher to walk around with a copy of The Firm or The Dead Zone. In my mind that would have been like walking around with a Danielle Steele novel. (Not walking around with a book at all wasn’t really an option. I took a book everywhere so that I could reward myself when I had to do boring things like grade papers. Three papers, one chapter. That’s how it went.) I was twenty-two and I’d had enough of old English stuff, so I picked up My Antonia, falling in love with poor Jim. Jim was good, and relatable and kind, like a pioneer version of Jim from The Office, so it was kind of like The Office meets Little House on the Prairie, though The Office wouldn’t be on TV for over a decade.
I loved Willa Cather’s descriptions; you can see the sun setting heathery-gold, and smell the wheat and sorghum fields. I was still pining for Colorado and the west in general, so after My Antonia I picked up some Edna Ferber. I will always have a deep affection for Giant and that time in the American west when everything started to change because oil was replacing cattle. Ferber’s characters, especially the father–Rock Hudson in the movie–are flawed and lovable and larger than life when they’re strong, painfully human when they’re weak, like real people. In fact if there was a Venn Diagram of books that teach you about families, fathers and daughters, America, bad boyfriends, prejudice, pride and love, Giant would hit all those marks.
Then my mom died suddenly, and I write that not to elicit pity but because when something like that happens, you can’t even go to the post office without every move you make to get there being over-drenched in meaning and pain and grief, much less read a novel. But I had to escape in novels, so I read the novel equivalent of chicken pot-pie: comforting stuff that was like a warm, fattening blanket. I read Rosamund Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers about five times because my mom liked it and I remember seeing the silver and pink paperback on her nightstand. What a lovely fluff novel. Penelope Keeling is a mother figure, which I needed, and I fancied myself similar to the lovely Antonia: smart and “different” and unhappy with my blond eyelashes. Then I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was somehow comforting despite the poverty and despite all the sad, hard things that happen to Francie. She’s a fighter, and at the end when she decides to be a writer, I thought for the millionth time that’s what I would do, too (still working on it). I still think of Francie when we buy a Christmas tree every year, and when I save change in a hidden jar, and I feel like she’s still alive and out there somewhere, observing beauty.
The book that really saved me from my grief over my mom, or at least showed me that grief could actually be funny, in a way, was Lolly Winston’s Good Grief. The main character’s young husband has died of cancer and she is muddling her way through a support group with weirdos and a job she hates until she suddenly loves it. She’s an observant, sarcastic gal so I loved her and thought, “It’s okay to laugh.” By then we sort of had the internet, and some primitive Amazon search told me I might enjoy the novels of Elizabeth Berg. There has never, ever been a more spot-on suggestion to me on a shopping website; Elizabeth Berg is just amazing. She is not Willa Cather or Edna Ferber, and she doesn’t try to be, but she captures life and people in this way that is perfect and funny and heartbreaking and inspiring and comforting all at once. I guess a publisher would market it as chick-lit, but that is not being fair to the beautiful, funny writing. I can’t even write a paragraph about which one I liked best because that would be like writing about which one of my friends I like best; I can’t do it. (Wait, I totally can, but my point is they all have their strengths.) They are all so freaking readable, with characters that break your heart while making you laugh. But if you’re going to start with one, start with We Are All Welcome Here or Dream When You’re Feeling Blue; you’ll see what I mean.
I went to graduate school and compromised slightly less than in college: I got an English degree, meaning I got to read a lot, but officially the degree was in “The Teaching of Writing and Literature,” so that I could teach again if I got desperate. I had to take a bunch of education and psych courses that I didn’t care for and don’t remember, but my English professors were marvelously accommodating. We could read whatever we wanted (!) and then talk write about it. I remember wishing I could have gone to graduate school first, instead of college. So I read Shakespeare’s comedies, interspersed with whatever I felt like, from Catcher in the Rye to Harry Potter (the first one came out about then). (As a side note, I had two small kids by the time I was in graduate school and one professor told me to deconstruct Goodnight Moon when she noticed it fall out of my backpack, which was also my diaper bag. She was a humorless woman and I didn’t know if this was her idea of a fun challenge or a punishment for the indecency of dropping Goodnight Moon in her classroom. This was before you heard about professors saying cool things like, “Can’t find a sitter? Bring the baby to class!” I’d gotten so good at writing papers that I wrote sixteen pages on Goodnight Moon and got an A. I wish I knew where that paper was now.) But once again none of the books I read for my classes really stuck with me, because even though I chose them, it wasn’t the same; I wasn’t reading for pleasure.
In the years that I was a young mother (an identity I’m having a hard time letting go of, even though a couple of them are about to go to college), I read to get a break and go somewhere interesting, at least in my head. I read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto when my oldest was eight; I remember this because it was so good that I snuck it into the second and third graders’ spring concert at school and tried to read during the boring section of “songs from other lands.” People were openly astonished that I would do this, including my husband who knows me, so I had to put it away. It’s a weird, wonderful story I never would have thought of in a million years, and at the end it’s basically a literary thriller you can’t put down. By now we really had the internet, and Ann Patchett led me to Jane Hamilton and A Map of the World. That’s a tough one to read when you have young children but it’s beautiful and hard and deep. For whatever reason, I didn’t read anymore of her books until recently, when The Excellent Lombards came out and I read in the space of ten hours, while taking care of work and home and life too. It’s an odd sort of page-turner and a tribute to farmers and family.
Which leads me to Jane Smiley. I can’t really say when I first read Jane Smiley, but I think it was A Thousand Acres, another book about farming and family, and this one won a Pulitzer so it’s no chick-lit fluff. I’ve been reading and re-reading her novels ever since. They are my go-to when I have to grab something to read and I don’t want to spend money on the kindle app and have no time for the library; I just grab some Jane Smiley novel I haven’t read in awhile. There was a movie of A Thousand Acres with Sissy Spacek and Michelle Pfeiffer, and it was fine if you’d never read the book, but without the omniscient narrative of the main character it fell flat. It was just people acting out a script, which wasn’t at all the same. The book was a powerful look at fathers and farming and sisters and marriage. I think there was some infidelity in there too. But the books of Smiley’s that really leave me speechless are her Last Hundred Years trilogy, starting with Some Luck. Here is a portrait of America as big and fascinating as Ferber’s Giant;, it begins in the 1920s and takes the reader through American history in novel form, reminding me of the time my grandparents were becoming adults, then my father, then me, then my children, with all the strong wills and personality conflicts and tensions and loyalties that would be in any big family, with a gorgeous backdrop. Seriously, this trilogy needs to be a movie–this one might work as a movie– except that I can’t think of a single actor who could do Frank justice; he’s so selfish and bad, but not entirely bad. Alec Baldwin is too old and too funny, so maybe Matt Bomer. But back to the books: if I was stranded on a desert island and had to read the same three books over and over, these would at least be in the running.
Then a few years ago I went through a Kingsolver/Quindlen/Shreve phase, alternating books by the three writers until I’d read mostly everything. I think I would disagree with these women on just about every issue in the world–they have such strong, independent voices as writers, but from what I have read, all three dutifully tote the party line and have the “correct” opinions on politics–but all of them are astonishing with words and plot. Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible is reminiscent of those Pat Conroy novels (the dysfunction, the childhood trauma and beauty all at once) but with dangerous African snakes and spiders, and a strong anti-Christian message, if I recall correctly. But the characters and plot hook you and suck you in and it’s useless to try to get out, and somehow it even makes you laugh sometimes. Kingsolver’s other novels, especially Flight Behavior and Prodigal Summer are like fingering some exotic and beautiful tapestry in a foreign marketplace: you don’t want to buy it, necessarily, but it’s so beautiful and you can’t stop looking at it.
Anna Quindlen has written some lovely novels; Blessings was the first one I ever read and it lived up to it’s name, so her Every Last One was a bit of a shock in terms of plot. I don’t want to give it away, but this one will make you want to keep your children home. The main character’s oldest daughter reminded me of mine, so I couldn’t shake this story for weeks after reading it, and I had trouble letting her out of my sight. But the writing is hypnotizing.
Anita Shreve captured everyone with her Oprah’s book club pick The Pilot’s Wife, but Stella Bain is wonderful (amnesia!) and my personal favorite is Light On Snow because it involves a grieving father and daughter–been there–and a baby and a young woman who isn’t what she seems. It isn’t a feel-good book, but it is. It’s redemptive somehow, and Shreve writes with an economy of words, which I have grown to admire. And after reading about Nicky Dillon and her dad, I had to go back and re-read Elizabeth Berg’s trilogy about Katie, starting with Durable Goods, one of my favorite books in the world. Yes. Read that one.
Somewhere around 2010 I was given a Kindle, and started reading anything it recommended, obeying it. I still love the feel of an actual book in my hands, but with a kindle or the app on an i-pad you can read free samples, which is a bit like going to a candy store without ever leaving home. If I had to say without thinking too much, what books I read in the last five years that I remember finishing and thinking, “Damn, that was amazing. I wish I had written it and I want to be that writer’s friend and I’ll probably read it again in a few years,” they would be, in no particular order, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon, And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass, The End of Everything by Megan Abbott, The Arrivals by Meg Mitchell Moore, and The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog.
All of those above were amazing, beautiful books. But there are three that I cannot just put on a list; it just so happens I read these three in actual book format, with pages and a spine and what-not. We are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is another one of those epic stories about America, and it is also about family and frailty and dreams you can’t quite reach but want so badly. I don’t know why this book isn’t more well known; it is important and rich and beautiful. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert was astonishing; gorgeous historical fiction that leans toward mystery. Gilbert she wrote Eat, Pray, Love, though this is nothing like that. Signature is full of adventure and horticulture, abolitionists and sailors. Just amazing. Finally, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. It also won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and it disappointed me only in that I loved the characters and wanted total happiness for them, but of course Doer knew better. That was the thing about this book–the beauty of it, despite all that suffering. How did he do that?
And real quick, the non-fiction: David McCullough and William Manchester. I know scholarly people scoff at them for writing history books for regular people, but that’s just because they’re jealous. When I had small kids and felt like I needed to re-grow the brain cells I lost every time I watched Barney or had a long conversation about going potty, or why goats are goats, I’d read a history book or biography. I loved being a stay-home mom, and thought I had the cutest, funniest kids in the universe (and truthfully, I did), but I needed to keep alive some small part of my brain that enjoys learning. Fiction alone couldn’t quite do it, so I alternated Manchester and McCullough. My father, I knew, liked The Last Lion books and American Caesar (about Churchill and McArthur, respectively), but the middle ages was more my cup of tea so I tried A World Lit Only By Fire. Manchester made this “dark period in time” (that’s what text books always say–it was just darkness and plague and starvation with a little Church corruption thrown in) seem so alive and fascinating that I briefly (briefly!) considered going back to school to study medieval history, and The Glory and The Dream reminded me why I love American history more.
David McCullough’s John Adams makes this seemingly dull second president seem larger than life, and even–oh man I can’t believe I’m saying this–a little sexy. If you absolutely can’t read a huge book about him, watch the documentary with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. I also tried The Great Bridge (seriously, you ask? A huge history book about a bridge? Yes! It’s totally not boring!) and Mornings on Horseback, (Teddy Roosevelt–what a MAN that guy was!) and I’m about to start The Wright Brothers, having once again reached a point where I think my brain cells are dying. (The kids are older now and don’t talk about goats and going potty, but now I work in a school library where all anybody wants is Elephant and Piggy books. Makes me want to cry).
Last but not least, the three best books I’ve read in the last three months: Olive Kitteridge, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and A Man Called Ove (yes, I KNOW, I read books for older people sometimes now! So what of it?) Elizabeth Straut’s Olive Kitteridge won a Pulitzer Prize too, and in about five pages you can tell why just from the voice of Olive. The book may be fiction but it says something profound about humans and families and getting older, and Olive is funny in the way of a difficult-to-love grandmother. The same goes for Ove, and if you ever tried to read that one and put it back on the shelf, try again and give it a few more pages. It’s actually a joyful little book. I owe a debt of gratitude to my dad for giving me a copy of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which involves the English countryside I’m so fond of, a guy that reminds me of my dad, and a love story that is delicate in an age when love stories never are. It’s funny and light-hearted with a below-the-surface depth and profundity, and Helen Simonson didn’t get it published until her kids were grown and she was in her forties or something, which gives me hope.
So there it is. Everything I ever read, or at least the stuff I remember. And my original point about kids not loving books anymore except the weird kids could, I think, be remedied, if we…what? Took away their phones for three hours a day–that would be a start. But it’s unfeasible and unlikely, and they’d just find something else to do. (Where I live, kids don’t even have one hour a day of unstructured time, much less three.) I swear, kids are getting dumber every year. So the weird kids out there who are reading Bronte and Hardy or Manchester and McCullough for fun will, one day, rule the world. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
P.S. I never read Angela’s Ashes, I think Wally Lamb’s books are just too depressing, and The Goldfinch? I read it, it was amazing, but that part in the middle? What? And I forgot Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel. Wow. I have to go look for my telescope.