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Turning Points In My Youthful Reading

January 29, 2014

Yesterday, I wrote about my early childhood introduction to reading, the fits and start of it. Here is the continuation of how I developed a love of reading, which led, ultimately, to my love of writing.

Though my father thought he’d hit on what would pull me into reading when he gave me Dwarf Long-Nose as a Christmas present, it was years later, when I was a teenager, that he really did hit it right when he gave me the non-fiction book, The Story of Masada by Yigael Yadin. And again, within the same timeframe, when he gave me Mia Italia by Gina Lollobrigita. Both books were not based in fiction and both were heavy with photography. My father was seeing me now as the sensitive person I was to the joys and sorrows of real life and to the human condition.

The Story of Masada is the combination story of the historical events around the siege of Masada as well as the archeological dig of that site two thousand years later. Much lighter in topic, Mia Italia is Gina Lollobrigida’s photo journal of her homeland – all her own photography. Each book, in markedly different ways, tell of real people and their love for their homeland.

As I was absorbing these examples of passionate living (and dying in the case of Masada), I was also being given fiction reading assignments with deadlines as a freshman and then as a sophomore in high school. I couldn’t put off the reading of the school assignments as I had with the fiction my father had given me when I was a child.

When I read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens my life changed. I found it nearly miraculous that an author could take me so completely into the world that he was depicting, as if I were right there with Pip, or perhaps I was Pip. It was as I read this book that I first thought of becoming a writer.

Around this time, one of my brothers suggested I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I read it in an afternoon, and again, I felt as if my life were changed. The arc of this contemporary tragedy, a tragedy caused by “modern” science, posed moral and ethical questions about the use of science. The clash of the human spirit and science in this book was resounding. It resonated a long time in me.

Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery, gob smacked me. How eerie my concern that it might not be suspension of disbelief that made this story believable, but the darker side of the human heart?

By the time I was a junior in high school I couldn’t wait for each semester’s syllabus of reading assignments for my English class. And I added my own reading on the side, books I found around the house. I already knew I’d major in English when I got to college.

It was thrilling for me to be introduced to the writing of F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe, William Shakespeare, Herman Hesse and then the Russian authors, whose works were like nothing I’d read before.

My exposure in high school to Edith Hamilton’s Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes led the way to my combined college major, English and the Classics. I studied Greek and Roman literature and philosophy as well my English literature studies.

Truthfully, there’s not much I remember of all this in detail. And I don’t consider myself “well read.” But book reading has left me with concepts about writing and writers and philosophies and people and their times and places. I was left, too, with a sensibility about the human condition – about life and death, about our joys and sorrows, our struggles and fears, our loves.

Sometimes, I’ll reread a book from my school days, out of curiosity. I like to know if it still will have the impact it left on me then. Some do, some don’t.

As an adult, I often am reading two or three books at a time. Books I’ve enjoyed in the past couple of decades are Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen,  I Capture the Castle by Dodi Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, (somehow I missed those three in my early years), Embers by Sandor Marai, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Joy School by Elizabeth Berg and, in non-fiction, Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. (For the record, I disliked The Help by Kathryn Stockett and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, both hugely popular books.)

I’m sure I’ll think of lots more that I’ve read through the years, and enjoyed, that I’ll wish I had included here.

This post and yesterday’s share with you the highlights that I remember of my reading journey. 

I’d love for you to share in comments the titles of books that sparked and held your love of reading.

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