Monday, June 23, 2014

The Power of a Book

This piece is adapted from an article I wrote that appeared Teacher magazine in 2006.
As a teenager I attended an upscale private school where I did not fit in. In a sea of preppies, I opted for a brooding persona. I wrote curse words in Sharpie on my high-top sneakers along with song lyrics from B-sides of obscure British pop records. I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up, where I wanted to go to college, or whether I even wanted to go to college. I never liked anything.

In junior year I took an elective called Reader's Response. I sat next to a girl who ironed the pleats of her uniform skirt every night. I pinned my pleats together with big safety pins that I sometimes removed to use as earrings.

We had to read 10 books in the course of a semester, our choice. I liked reading but I could only think of six. The teacher said I should read The Catcher in the Rye. He handed me a copy he happened to have on the shelf.

So I started. By the time the class ended, I had lifted out of my life and landed into Holden's, a boy I alternately wanted to smack and salute. Kind of how I felt about myself.

I read that book in its entirety without once putting it down. I eschewed all other homework. I read late into the night. When I finished, I lay awake, unable to sleep.

The carousel stuck with me the most. It is such a tragic scene when Holden pays for his sister Phoebe’s seat on the beat-up ride of his own youth. Poor Phoebe tries talking sense to nihilist Holden. "You never like anything," she says.

I sympathized with Phoebe yet agreed with Holden. School was pointless. He and I were trapped together on a road toward an uninteresting destination. Like Holden I yearned for human connection and authenticity in my life.

I walked away from that book a changed person. I read The Catcher in the Rye and my life path became clear. I wanted to read books and write for a living. Nothing else would do because nothing else felt true to who I really was. This book started me on becoming who I am.

As a teacher I never forget the power a single book can have on a person. It’s impossible to predict what book it will be. I got lucky with that one intuitive English teacher because the best life-changing book is hardly ever what a teacher or parent thinks it should be. In my first published novel How to Be Manly, a teenager’s whole life shifts course because of a book he steals from a garage sale. He finds it by chance and it changes everything.

I teach and write with reverence for the moment when a student or reader will find reality crashing with just the right book at just the right time. It happens with the character in my own novel and it happens with me still now that I am grown.

There is nothing like the book that makes you turn the last page and look out the window and realize that you are different now. You realize that your own tragic scenes have meaning. You realize that even though you still never like anything that maybe you might like a few things. You realize that while you are still alone, someone once wrote a book explaining everything you feel and that maybe you are not alone. You have found the book by chance and now everything is different, including you.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,” Holden says.

I still know just how he feels.

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