Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Many Ways Reading Has Changed My Life

You know how you read a book and feel consumed by the world of it? It is changing your life and you believe the change is radical and permanent. And then a few years later, you can barely remember the title or the author’s name. Some books, though, remain with you and they aren’t the ones you expected to still be alive in your memory and affect how you think today.

I have that kind of piercing, all-consuming sensation sometimes with nonfiction books. Most of the time, though, it comes only with books of fiction. 

One of the first books I recall clearly in this way was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. I was so excited when I discovered Vonnegut’s books, and this one in particular. He includes the "Books of Bokonon" in Cat’s Cradle and I took the time to write down all the lines from those Books. Years later I turned the lyrics into part of a musical composition for a music theory class at the University of Hawaii. 

When I first read Vonnegut's book, I was deeply mired in the depth and darkness of my own depression while experiencing my first temperate zone winter – in Washington, D.C., age 23. Reading the book was a huge respite for me.

That year I also read Watership Down by Richard Adams and was delighted and surprised by the warlike rabbits. I bought a tiny notebook and wrote down all the names of the plants in the book. I still have the notebook somewhere.

It seems that all books assigned to me in school – until I got to graduate school – were meaningless and trite. I’m sure the list was impressive but I just didn’t care about them. Beginning with Jack and Jill.

The one novel of all the ones I read in my master’s program (probably 50-60 total) that stays with me is To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.

I eventually discovered that it begins with a sentence that is exactly 100 words long and that sentence contains, in its perfectly grammatical and punctuated form, the entire architecture of the novel, from beginning to middle to end. One hundred words. How many times did I read it without really seeing it, understanding it?

Eventually I wrote a paper about the book and this coded sentence. When did Woolf write that sentence? After she finished writing the book? Who would know? Perhaps Leonard Woolf, but he’s gone now, too. Did anyone ask him, ask her about it?

The book still holds my attention.

Since then other authors have moved me, enthralled me, puzzled me. Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day. Many puzzling, intricately drawn characters and scenes, plus multiple themes and sub-plots. Atonement by Ian McEwan, though not so much his other books.  

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, a memoir about a person and writer extraordinaire. The book was published in 1995 and changed the world of memoir writing forever. The genre took a hard right turn and everyone writing memoirs has been playing catch-up to Mary Karr ever since. I read it before I wrote my memoir in 2007 and received implicit permission to express myself courageously.

Thank you, Virginia Woolf, for writing because of your talent and in spite of your depression. (And damn, I wish there had been antidepressants for you.) Thank you, Mary Karr, for your big-as-Texas heart and your wide open writing – skills, storytelling, sharp memories, all of it.

These two women (plus Dorothy Sayers for her perfectly designed and charmingly written murder-detective novels starring Lord Peter Wimsey) inspired me to write and to keep on reading and searching for books and inspiration and telling my own stories.

Who inspires you and what did they write that changed your life?

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