10 Writers Share Their Most Powerful Reading Experiences
Describe a single reading experience that made a lasting impression on you. Were you five years old? Twenty-five? What was going on in your life at the time? What did that reading, change for, or give to you? (05.28.16)
My most indelible reading experience came when I was eight years old. I was always a bookish kid, but became even more so when my father was diagnosed with cancer that same year. As the world around me grew busier and more frantic, I retreated further into the make-believe world of stories, where events made sense and where characters learned things from adversity. In reading about children who had to survive embarrassing or traumatic situations, I began to understand that maybe one day I would look back on my father’s illness and death as part of something bigger, as part of the trajectory of my life and life in general. This was a comforting thought and helped me make sense of nonsensical tragedy. It was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh that changed everything for me. Harriet survived loss. Harriet survived humiliation. Harriet just survived. And this changed my life.
I read the end of this novel during my commute to work one morning in downtown San Francisco. I was about 24 years old and fresh out of graduate school. The last chapter of that book shouted and whispered to me, causing a massive emotional reaction. I couldn’t control the tears as I walked down the sidewalk. It wasn’t the first time I'd cried over a book, and it wouldn’t be the last, but I just remember thinking, ‘Damn, I want my words to do that someday. I want to move people to those places in themselves that they can't outrun.’ It was a tragic and blissful and necessary release. Ann Petry’s The Street cemented my desire to be both a surrendering reader and writer.
One of my most striking reading experiences was not a single book but several by the same author. We studied him in high school over a period of several semesters, and the range of work he displayed was just extraordinary. There was romance, thriller, mystery, tragedy and comedy. I became so enamored of his writing style—the way he could say volumes with just the right turn of phrase—that I began researching his life and reading more of his works not assigned as course materials by my teachers. The more I read, the more fascinated I became.
It goes without saying that this was not a contemporary writer but one of the old greats, the master who students learn from, who teachers refer to as worth reading.
Today when I look at the fiction world, whether as an author or a reader or even a writing instructor, I find that we no longer have the ability to be flexible in our literature-related tastes. As authors we are told to stick to one genre, otherwise we will confuse our readers. As readers we try to develop loyalties around topics and themes, so that we are either romance readers or sci-fi or historical readers but not all of them combined. And as writing instructors we have a host of advice about how to write what you know, and only what you know, and not to become too broad or diverse in your writing, and to stick with fiction or non-fiction or poetry or screenplays, but not all of them, for God’s sake.
The question is, what’s wrong with writing multiple genres and for diverse audiences? Some, like my inspirational writer above, can do so as effortlessly as a swan gliding through water. This question has become a conundrum for me, a dilemma that must be solved. I like dabbling in many different areas of writing. Fiction, non-fiction, essay, adult and children’s books… you name it, I’m doing it. I’m nowhere as great as my inspiration, but at least I’m trying. What is life but a challenge? After all, it was my inspiration—the great bard Shakespeare, dramatist, playwright and poet extraordinaire—who motivated me to write.
When I was six years old, Santa left me a heavy yellow-box under the tree. Inside were nine thin paperback books all lined-up waiting to be read.
I remember pulling out the first one, cracking open the binding, and settling down to read the afternoon away. Our Christmas turkey baked in the oven, snow fell in whispers outside, the light faded... yet on I read.
I had devoured all nine books by New Years Day. By Valentine's, I had re-read them at least once more. So tattered and loved is my original Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House on the Prairie set that I had to purchase a new version for my own children to read.
The first time a book ever squeezed my chest, grabbing hold of my heart, I was about 10 years old. Other books had given me "all the feels," but this was the first time a book haunted me. Long after reading it, I couldn't get it out of my head. I re-read it several times after, even back to back. The story was so immersive and heartbreaking, I wanted to keep the characters with me at all times and protect them. Other tragic middle grade books made me sad or even cry, but Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson) was the first to leave its fingerprints on my heart.
When I was 21 and fresh out of the hospital after my third emergency brain surgery, I made a trip to my hometown's Borders bookstore to pay my respects and pick up a billion criminally under-priced books during its closing sale. On one of the messy racks I encountered a hardcover with an impressionistic image of a little girl dancing on the jacket. The jacket copy gave the impression that the book was about a group of children growing up in an idyllic orphanage somewhere in the English countryside. I'm not generally one for bildungsroman or anything set in the English countryside, but the prose grabbed me from the first paragraph, so I took the thing home for a dollar or two.
This was the last time I ever read a book without first Googling the author and the title, and I am so glad I didn't, because the dystopia, hinted at through eerie euphemism and the sing-song language of children, crept up on me like it never could have otherwise. Particularly after having such a recent experience of the medically horrific variety, the main conceit of the novel, and the universal truths it teased out, hit me hard. The book, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, absolutely and in the best way possible, destroyed me and any notions I had of what speculative literature could be.
Oh! I can tell you exactly the time of day, 12:34 pm, but not the year. I was 17 and undiagnosed with bipolar. My existence was a series of zombie jerks that bled into each other, always vivid, mostly painful and sometimes dangerous. Relationships were infections of emotional ebola and the closer to home they were, the more ill I became. Reading had always been a sanctuary for me, a place of greater safety but it wasn’t until I discovered this writer that I realised that my suffering was not uncommon. That for sensitive, misplaced women, love could be a volta of scar tissue or a weekend with a serial killer. Deceit and betrayal are common themes in many women's novels but I had never found anything this visceral or reassuring. I wept with relief and affirmation and smoked a packet of Gauloises to celebrate our mutual damnation, sister to sister.
I read how her open marriage had also cut through her confidence, libido, and redefined how she thought of herself, pretending for much of the time that she was elsewhere and the pain was not her pain but a universal hurt made a deeper red by each blunt force trauma. As Waugh wrote in Brideshead Revisited ‘A blow expected, repeated, falling on a bruise, with no smart or shock of surprise, only a dull sickening sensation and the doubt whether another like it could be borne.'
And yet we do. Bear it again and again. In the name of a disfiguring disease called ‘love’.
The Woman Destroyed (Simone de Beauvoir).
I was 16 years old when my favorite high school English teacher assigned us a book of her choosing. The title didn't immediately capture me, but I trusted her judgement; she was often giving me book recommendations outside of class and had a tender heart for beautiful language. Words cannot efficiently describe how quickly I enveloped, swallowed, devoured the novel. I read it in between classes, late at night. The beauty of the storytelling left a deep impression on me as a writer, as a piece of writing to look up to and strive for. More than that, it was a story about the intersection of love and loss, how connectedness is such an essential component of being human.
At the time, I dealt with typical, high school dilemmas of unrequited loves, fights with friends, misunderstandings with parents, the stress of grades, etc. I also worried about my great aunt, who was almost like another grandmother to me, who suffered a stroke and lost function in the right part of her body. I saw her at least once a week and always left feeling heavy and distressed. It always felt like she had more to say that she couldn't remember or couldn't make out, and I always tried to fill the silence with my own words. This book came just in time. Amidst my confusion and worry, it brought me melancholy understanding of how I connected with others: my great aunt, friends, parents. It changed the way I viewed my relationships and breathed a fresh creative style to my own storytelling/writing.
The book was: History of Love by Nicole Krauss.
Stories have the innate ability to teach without chastising. The main characters always seem to come up with witty and intelligent ways of solving seemingly insurmountable obstacles. While sitting in church, I was reading a story about a great kid who turned into an even better man. While the kid was praying, God (as in the most powerful being in the multiverse) comes to him and tells him to make a wish... like Genie off Aladdin. God gives the kid a few suggestions like wishing for all the money in the world, all the power in the world, all the fame in the world, etc. This kid tells God (as in, Super Saiyan God Mode of all Deities in existence) that all he wants is to be super wise/smart. That response blew my thirteen year old brain up.
It was such an intelligent thing to say, I immediately started praying to God and asking him for the same thing. That story struck me on such a personal level that even now tears well up in my eyes just thinking about it. Never before had I thought to pray to an all powerful being for actual guidance and intelligence. It was so easy it made me feel stupid. I think that's the making of a story with real impact. The story of Solomon in the Bible became one of the greatest guiding forces for me and it remains so to this day. A great story conveys complex information in such a novel way that it truly impacts you to your soul.
When I was about six I picked up this book that my older brother had been reading—it changed my life... set me up for years as I read through the collection and when finished, I'd start again. I found that re-reading a book, it didn't diminish the joy, it only heightened the expectancy and I read the books for years, until moving onto older books. It also unlocked my adventurous side. I already had a weird and strong imagination, but The Famous Five collections by Enid Blyton opened my eyes and my brother and I became the famous two!
image (top): Deep Thoughts / SML Me by See-ming Lee
If you don't fall in love with reading
by the time you can legally buy beer,
God bless you.