It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. – James Baldwin
My freshman year of college I was a tormented soul. Somehow I had come to inhabit a place of deep darkness and I wasn’t really sure how I came to be there, and I certainly couldn’t seem to find my way out. And then in the spring, I met James Baldwin. Not literally. But through his short story, “Sonny’s Blues,” which is to this day still my all-time favorite short story.
(You can read it online here.) Although the characters in this story, two black brothers living in Harlem, had nothing to do with me, their struggles and experiences resonated deep within my soul. Somehow, I felt less alone in the world. That these two brothers might, after all their personal struggles, still find love and peace and happiness made my own struggles seem worthwhile and even possibly surmountable.
Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis were two other books I read that year, with obvious parallels to my own life even just from the titles. Through books, stories, poems, I found pain and struggle, torment and oppression, and yet there was also beauty. A glimmer, a spark was somehow guiding me out of the darkness. In sharing stories, fiction or not, we inspire, grieve, break and mend hearts, live and die.
I’ve found many other books that have buoyed me even when I was in the midst of much happiness. Some favorites include:
Albom: Tuesdays with Morrie
Foer: Everything is Illuminated; Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Kingsolver: The Bean Trees; Animal Dreams
Krakauer: Into the Wild
Martel: Life of Pi
McBride: The Color of Water
McCourt: Angela’s Ashes
Oates: We were the Mulvaneys
Ondaatje: The English Patient
Proulx: Accordion Dreams
Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye
Sebold: The Lovely Bones
Stegner: Angle of Repose
Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Zusak: The Book Thief
And I suppose that the reason I write is to connect with others as well. Writing and reading are both solitary acts. The author writes alone, the reader reads alone – usually. And yet writer and reader are intimately connected through the work itself. It has been gratifying for me as a writer to have a reader tell me that I expressed something they felt but could not quite articulate. That moves me to write more, to write better, and to find more stories to tell.
What stories have touched you?