It’s November 1st, Sandy has blown through wreaking havoc, and I’m up for the National Novel Writing Month (I’m actually doing it with my daughter… who truly deserves a separate post devoted to her laurels, but I digress…).
Not all of us are writers, but hopefully everyone can learn to be a great reader. Unfortunately, the written word has been so dumbed down, that really bad Fan Fic based on a poorly written bestseller will net you a seven-figure advance. I’m not jealous of such “writers,” but I do find it somewhat disheartening that what constitutes “literature” today is not just banal but completely devoid of artistry. Type 50,000 words and you, too, can be a writer, but what does it say to those who read this drivel?
I want to believe that great readers are still out there. I recently read a comment by National Book Award nominee Dave Eggers, writing about the books he most cherishes:
These are the books that crushed me, changed me when I first read them.
So, I invite you to think about the great (or even tawdry) books that shaped your life, that crushed and changed you. For me, I do not really consider myself a great reader. My sister and parents couldn’t get through the day without cracking open a book; they read dozens—or even hundreds—of books in a year. I’m content to curl up with Sudoku before drifting off to sleep. My daughter, too, is a prolific reader. She’ll chew through books the way others tear through a nice steak. Her biggest relief upon starting college is that she finally has time to read for pleasure again (for those of an older generation, you may not be aware of the strains on high school juniors and seniors who are college bound). I wish I were the kind of reader these family members are.
That said, there are certain books that shaped me, my writing and my person. They stuck, for want of a better word. So, in no particular order, I will attempt to share with you 30 books in 30 days that changed my life. In fact, I’ll probably list more than 30 (because the entire Harry Potter series is on the list, and I’m not doing a week’s worth of posts on the merits of J.K. Rowling).
My first “profound” book was Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds. Not her best work, but it was somewhat of a guilty pleasure that I read and reread as a youth. It wasn’t the taboo subject of priestly vows and the breaking thereof that got me all worked up. It was the descriptive language the McCullough uses to describe her characters, the Australian outback, and the multi-generational travails undertaken.
However, what totally hooked me and drew me in was the opening poem from which the novel takes its title:
Long Ago, there was a bird who sang just once in its life.
From the moment it left its nest, it searched for a thorn tree.
and it never rested until it found one.
Then it began to sing more sweetly
than any other creature on the face of the earth.
And singing, it impaled its breast on the longest, sharpest thorn.
But as it was dying, it rose above its own agony
to out-sing the lark and the nightingale.
The thornbird pays its life for that one song
and the whole world stills to listen
and God, in His heaven, smiles.
As its best was bought only at the cost of great pain.
Driven to the thorn, with no knowledge of the dying to come.
But when we press the thorn to our breast,
And still… we do it.
It was these words that made me weep before I had even cracked the book. Something resonated with me. And isn’t that what great writing is all about?