Tuesday, September 25, 2012

COMMENTARY: Books that Changed my Life

There have been many books that influenced me throughout my life. I thought I'd name just a few here:  

GREEN EGGS AND HAM -- As a visually-handicapped student, I struggled to learn to read. Dick and Jane bored me to tears. I was in the slowest reading group and I dreaded getting called up to read. While I had an excellent vocabulary for one my age--least that is what my Mom and her teacher friends told me--the words just didn't make sense on the page. Then, Mom bought Dr. Seuss and I couldn't get enough! I loved the colorful fantasy world he created and I couldn't wait for the next book to come in the mail. I moved from the slowest group to the medium group and to the best group from first to third grade. To my surprise, Mrs. Holley, my third-grade teacher, asked me to read to the kindergarteners.  Green Eggs and Ham was the book I chose. Reading to those kids was one of the best moments of my life. I still love this book because of the message about prejudice and acceptance. For my seventeenth wedding anniversary, Tony got me a signed Dr. Seuss print from Green Eggs and Ham.

DAVID COPPERFIELD -- By fifth grade, I was in the top reading group, but I was stagnating reading The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. That was the year we got a school library. It was a raggle-taggle collection of dusty books, most of which needed mending, but that was my favorite place in the school. When Mrs. Cowden, my fifth grade teacher, told us she wanted us to read, I asked her for a suggestion. She handed me David Copperfield. The book was heavier and thicker than the family Bible. I stood there, somewhat flummoxed and asked how I read it. She said, "One page at a time."One line got me hooked:  "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show." That year, I read over 100 books, including Shakespeare, all of Dickens and Greek mythology.

HUCKLEBERRY FINN -- Another author Mrs. Cowden handed over to me was Mark Twain. In those 100 books, she literally covered much of my reading lists til my Senior year. Huckleberry Finn was the first book I read which took place before the Civil War. I realized how much better off all the races were and I was grateful we'd come past the point of dehumanizing people for profit. 

1984 -- This was the first sci-fi outside of the pulp Star Trek books I read. I was hooked. That got me moving to Jules Verne and many others. George Orwell also got me thinking about the state of the world. Sometimes, that scares me.

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD -- I'm not sure what grade I read this book in the first time. Right then, I wished Atticus had been my father. I also decided that no matter what kind of person my father was, I would strive to be better. 

GO ASK ALICE -- By eighth grade, I was getting curious about drugs. I read Go Ask Alice and I wasn't so sure. By ninth grade, I had a counselor, Mrs. Bashford, who told me drugs probably weren't a good idea for me. She told me the story about working in a drug rehab center in California. They had a group therapy session and one of the members pretended to be a jukebox for roleplay. The guy sat in the corner and did a beautiful job humming "A Man and a Woman." When the roleplay was over, they told him he could quit. Only he couldn't. He was stuck on that song. Try as they might, they couldn't get him off that song--she left that rehab center several years later and he was still humming that song. She said that was what happened to highly creative people sometimes when they took drugs. Yeah, I thought about taking a toke and that stupid song played in my head.

THE UGLY AMERICAN--This book was recommended by my Civics teacher in 8th grade. I don't think the lessons here apply just to Americans abroad. You can sully the waters even locally if you're not respectful of the group, church, whatever you are attempting to join. The book's good advice on how to walk softer in this world, which we sometimes badly need. 

BIRD BY BIRD -- I don't know what age I was when I happened on this treatise on life and writing. Whatever the project is, when I find myself getting under stress, I remember Anne Lamott's words and I calm down. If I need a good laugh, she is my go-to girl.

THE POWER OF NOW -- I made my first ventures into yoga in tenth grade. I'm not great at meditation, but I remember the mantra: "I'm not in the past, I'm not in the present, I'm in the beautiful NOW." I never fully got that until I read this book. Being in NOW has helped me deal with PTSD and hard memories from my past.

THE HANDMAID'S TALE -- Lovecraft didn't manage to scare me half as much as Margaret Atwood. The best dystopic fiction takes a root fear, links it to trends, and makes it happen. I read The Handmaid's Tale probably twenty years ago and the imagery still sticks with me. Recently, a friend's librarian in light of the War on Women, filed the book under "Current Events." That gave me chills.

BOOK OF A THOUSAND DAYS -- This is one of the first YA books I have read in my adulthood and it drove my desire to write in this genre. Book of a Thousand Days traps two vastly different women in a tower. From this construct, their characters are stripped bare. This is one tale with a life lesson that's unforgettable. You'll want extra copies to share with your friends.

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, September 2012

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