Thursday, October 16, 2008

I Read Therefore I Am

I’ve always been a big reader. As a child I inhaled books, read every series imaginable (and every non-series, too). My first loves were mysteries and horror: Nancy Drew books, RL Stine, Stephen King, and The Westing Game. This was in elementary school.

When I was 12, I read Gone With the Wind and cried when I finished it because I was sure I would never read anything else that would captivate me quite as much (I would, of course). I also adored A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Flowers for Algernon, and many others that I sadly can’t remember the titles of now.

By the time I got to high school, I’d read so much, that dialogue seemed to form naturally in my head and at the oddest moments. One of my favorite English assignments was when we were required to write a short sequel to The Scarlet Letter (not on my favorites list!). But it was one of the first times I thought about the interplay between reading and writing.

In college I majored in English, and I was required to read a lot of books. Admittedly, very few became my favorites, though some did. I had to read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood my first semester, and the book both terrified and mesmerized me. As a senior, I read The Great Gatsby again. I’d read it in high school, and I hadn’t loved it, but this time around it became one of my favorites. I think it’s because one of my first writing professors always said that point of view is everything in writing. When I reread Gatsby this completely clicked for me.

Towards the end of college and into graduate school, books that became my favorites were books that taught me something about writing and fascinated me. These books tended to be literary and contemporary: Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, my all-time favorite collection of short stories by my all-time favorite short story author; Kent Haruf’s Plainsong (my motivator for wanting to use multiple points of view), and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn (a literary mystery with the most interesting narrator).

In the past few years, since I’ve been out of school, I’ve found myself drawn towards books with strong female protagonists, the kinds of protagonists that I also like to write. Black and Blue by Anna Quindlen is a book whose language, sadness, and beauty astonish me. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini is my favorite book that I've read in the past year. It’s a nearly 400 page book, and I read it in one day. I became so emotionally invested the characters that I sobbed through the entire ending.

When I look back, I can remember reading each of these books, remember the point in my life when I read them, what I was feeling, and what the books made me feel. And that’s what I love about books, the way they are like living things, like an old friend that I can come back to again and again, simply by opening the cover and becoming absorbed.

I guess, really, that’s how a book becomes my favorite, by being ultimately absorbable, a place where the characters are so real, the language so captivating, that while reading, my mind falls into this fictional world, if only for a few hours.

The only thing better than reading a book, in my opinion, is writing one. But for me, one thing doesn’t, and never has, existed without the other. My road to writing has been paved with books – the ones I’ve loved and the ones I haven’t. Ultimately, my favorites are the ones that have taught me and inspired me the most.


Rachel Cantor said...

Jill, your post is so true! One of my favorites is Moloka'i By Alan Brennert. I read it when I was in Moloka'i, Hawaii over the summer and I was so captivated by the characters that I felt that it were a true story rather than historical fiction. When I was hiking down to Kalaupapa I kept looking for the places where the main character would have gone in the book. It is something special when the author is able to capture that realism. I am excited for people to read your book so they can add it to their all time favorites list!!

Maureen Lipinski said...

RL Stine! Yes! How could I have forgotten about those books?

Lesley Livingston said...

This post really resonated with me, Jillian - even when I was a kid, there were those times when I would sink so deeply into a book that I was always surprised when my mom showed up at my bedroom door wondering why on earth I was refusing to come to dinner. What? What time is it? You were calling me? Oh...

Tracy Madison said...

Oh wow, Jillian. Amazing post. I couldn't agree with you more about so many things you said. Many times in my life, books have been my salvation. A place to escape. Somewhere no one else from the "real" world could follow me. And yep, writing is so much the same way.

Jillian Cantor said...

Thanks you guys! Rachel, You keep mentioning that book. I will have to read it!

Maureen, I know there are so many I can't remember that I loved when I was younger. Makes me feel kinda old.

Lesley, I was the same way as a kid, although usually I was reading late at night when my parents thought I was asleep because I just couldn't put a book down.

Tracy, I agree. Salvation is a good way to describe it!