“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.” – John Steinbeck
There are books that have changed the way that large portions of the country or the world think and act. The right book published and read at the right time can change history. But in the grand scheme of things, in the vast number of books that are being published each year, the number to have that kind of impact is miniscule. At an individual level, however, it’s easier for one obscure book to change the way a person looks at his or her life, even if the effects aren’t permanent. For one moment, it might actually be the most important thing in that person’s world. The book that made them laugh when they needed it most; the quote that made them shudder with understanding; the character that made them recognize something about themselves that had been obscured or hidden.
I love losing myself in a book in order to find myself.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The first time I read this novel was as a summer reading assignment in high school. As much as I think students should read over the summer break, I feel a lot of summer reading assignments miss the mark. This was one of them. There were three books we all had to read over the summer but when the fall came and school started again, we didn’t discuss any of them. At all. To the best that I recall, we were told that we would get an assignment that first week of school but there was no paper or project assigned over the summer except to read the books. I remember taking copious notes because I wasn’t sure what I would need to remember and what would be helpful by the time the school year came around. As a result, I didn’t get to really think too much about the book itself; I spent the entire time I was reading it stressing about it. Thank god I had to read it again in college because it is actually a wonderful if tragic story. Beautifully written and with so much to discuss, I’m glad I got a second chance to appreciate The God of Small Things.
The Golden Ass by Apuleius
This book was assigned to me in my fantasy lit class in college and the first thing I remember is that I had to go through the hassle of exchanging the copy I’d purchased over the summer because the professor hadn’t specified that he wanted the Robert Graves translationspecifically. After that, I remember enjoying it beyond the lengthy retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth in the middle (which so many of my fellow students found to be the only good part of the book). I didn’t care for the religious side of the book’s conclusion, but other than that, I found it wonderfully funny and entertaining; a book that stands the test of time surprisingly well.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
This is my favorite book by Steinbeck. I first read it in high school and while so many students obsessed over the turtle, I got lost in the tale of the Joad’s journey and struggles during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The way Steinbeck experimented with form, style, and narration in the intercalary chapters was inspiring. The symbolism and imagery throughout the novel are breathtaking and deep. It was a book I was happy to read a second time in graduate school and will probably go back to on my own at some point in the future.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I was warned about The Great Gatsby when it was first assigned to me in high school. My father had hated it when he’d had to read it and felt such warning was necessary. It wasn’t. I remember finishing it while sitting on the washing machine and asking my father how he could possibly have hated it. The assignment we had to do for class was my all-time favorite high school assignment and settled once and for all that I was going to be an English major. “In the beginning of the book, Nick Carraway states that Gatsby ended up all right in the end. Do you agree or disagree and why?” In college, The Great Gatsby was the book used to illustrate and demonstrate the multitude of literary theories for my first real criticism class (it tied in with our Critical Theory Today text whose third edition was just released; a book that came in handy when it came to GREs and graduate school). I had to read it again in grad school and am always amazed at how much is addressed in such a small book.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But I hated The Hobbit. I made my first attempt to read it in fifth grade at the recommendation of my father. I got through about three chapters before giving up and moving on to Anne of Green Gables (which was one of the biggest books for my preteen and young adult life so it was a very good switch for me at that time and one I will never regret). The second time I tried reading The Hobbit was after having seen the movies and read the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I didn’t get much farther. It was only after getting a copy of the audiobook that I was able to make it all the way through The Hobbit. I’ve enjoyed the film adaptations (though I think it should have stayed at two) but from my friends who are diehard fans of the book, there’s a lot that’s been changed and added so I think my enjoyment of the films is in large part because of those alterations.