14 March 2010

Why I read

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
Morrison: Beloved
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?


  1. I always have great difficulty remembering the books that meant the most to me, that provided the great leaps of developmental insight, or gave me solace. Of course, there is always One Hundred Years of Solitude and, for me, The Plague, as well as even more youthful books like On The Road, The Man With The Golden Arm (which should be, IMO, even now, at the top of any list of great American novels), and, yes, The Catcher In The Rye.

    But on to an actual discussion of sorts. First I'll start with your list, or a very small part of it. Into The Wild hit during the years of severe introspection that followed Craig's suicide. And thus it offered a great deal of solace, along with an adjustment to a "connected detachment" from a form of idealism lost to loss, as well as to daily work in the non-profit sector. In a very different, yet related, theme, The Disappearance by Geneviève Jurgensen, had a big effect upon me at the time. It gave voice to grief and permission to enjoy solace, and, well, to enjoy joy. And, uh, yeah, there were many books that held sway in the mid- to late-90s.

    For now, I'll mention a few more that come to mind:

    Surviving Auschwitz by Primo Levi

    Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number by Jacobo Timerman

    Adolfo Bioy Casares makes me laugh and think at the same time like no other author. And speaking of laughter, William Saroyan still makes me giggle late at night.

    Ah, but I know I am forgetting so much. If David James Duncan wasn't such an asshole, I'd probably have mentioned The Brothers K (oh, lord, and speaking of obsessions with Russian authors, uh, no, let's not go there) though The River Why is certainly a better book.

    Both of those harken back to the mid-90s, and their descriptions of family are quite incredible, IMO. All right, speaking of families, I must go now. Perhaps my memory will bring me back.


  2. Not to sound too trendy, but Three Cups of Tea and Eat, Pray, Love both changed me in some way in recent years.

    The other ones that have shaped me over many years: Catch-22, actually anything by John Irving (I also think David Sedaris is hilarious, but I don't think that I could say that he's made me who I am.), The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Jazz, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Glass Castle, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and many, many more I'm sure.

    I want to read The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama (maybe if I put it out there, I'll actually get around to it). I LOVE reading, but I don't do it often just because I love it so much. Once I pick up a book, I find it hard to think about anything else, and I just want to keep reading straight through until the end, without stopping to eat, sleep, pay attention to my family...

  3. Kurt & Christy - Thanks for some great titles to add to my list.
    Christy, I definitely agree about Three Cups of Tea. I look forward to reading Mortenson's next book. I just recently read Eat, Pray, Love and have to admit I'm pretty jealous that E. Gilbert thought of that book idea before I did...
    Kurt, I haven't read most of the books you mention. I have shared Into the Wild with many of my students, and I hope it gave some perspective to their struggles and how those struggles affect and are affected by family dynamics.
    Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Okay, now for something truly weird:
    My choices would be
    *Democracy in America by de Tocqueville
    *One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn (I'm glad that's not my last name)
    *Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.

    Oh, and then there is
    *Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Tolkien
    *The World's Religions by Huston Smith
    *The Origin of Species by Darwin (even if you don't want to read the entire book you must sit down in a bookstore and read the last paragraph. Wow!)