The First Book I Fell For

The Guardian is asking for its writers to share the stories of books that ignited their passion for literature.

I have always been a reader. I can remember curling up with The Cat in the Hat even before I could really read it, just wishing I could read it on my own. I can remember turning to books as a child whenever I wanted to learn more about something—whether it was dinosaurs or ancient Egypt. I can remember going to the library and the bookstore with my mother, and I can’t remember a single time she didn’t let me buy a book from the store. She let me read what I wanted, too. I can remember curling up with Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, Lois Duncan and Madeleine L’Engle. If I had to pick one book that ignited my own passion for literature, it would be To Kill a Mockingbird.

 To Kill a Mocking Girl

I read this novel in my junior year as part of my American literature course. I had read other books I loved, but this book touched me so deeply. I knew the characters. They were like my family. I cried through most of the end. I can still remember being ahead of the reading schedule for the first time. I can remember reading a required book on my own time, and more than I needed to read for an assignment. I remember looking forward to classes when Mrs. Keener let us read quietly for the period. Any time I was able to spend with that book was precious time. I have had some amazing experiences teaching it since then, too. I have read other books afterward that have touched me every bit as deeply, and perhaps even more deeply, but this book was the first. It might be the book that made me decide to teach English.

What book ignited your passion for literature?

Update, 9/24/10: Audible is getting into the act with their “First Loves.” Check it out!

photo credit: Bruna Ferrara

My Life in Books: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a MockingbirdMy first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird came in sixth grade. As a reward, our classes were allowed to watch the movie during school. It was such a great story. Two years later, I was looking at the books my language arts teacher had on her library rack, and I picked up the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. With the unerring sense of an English teacher sniffing a student interested in a book, she was at my side in a moment asking me if I would like to read the book. I sheepishly put it back on the rack. I was scared to read it at that time, and I can’t think why. I had read other adult books, and one could argue that this, despite it’s cover, was not even an adult book. The cover was yellow with some adult-looking print.

Yellow To Kill a Mockingbird

I thought it looked like a mystery or a spy novel. I don’t think I put it together with the movie I had already seen.

To Kill a Mockingbird was assigned reading in my 11th grade English class (American lit.). I usually have a hard time keeping up with a school reading schedule, but I stayed ahead in this book. I devoured it. I read more than I was assigned. I was entranced by the characters. I fell in love with the book. It was the first assigned novel I read for school that I really liked.

What Harper Lee did masterfully in this book is capture real people. I knew folks just like all the characters in the book. While the book has some critics, I still consider it one of the best books I’ve ever read and one I would definitely consider worthy of its place in the literary canon. Parts of this book still have the power to make me laugh aloud and cry real tears. My favorite books have almost always been character-driven. I love good characters, and I am willing to forgive flawed writing and hackneyed plot if the characters are good. I think I trace that love of character to my first experience reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

In the years since that first reading over twenty years ago, I have had the pleasurable experience of teaching the novel, and many times, students react to it in the same way that I did. Harper Lee has famously described the novel as “a love story.” In a way, it is. It’s a snapshot of a moment in time and place. It’s a moving homage to Lee’s own father, Amasa Lee, who was her model for Atticus—Harper Lee gave Gregory Peck, who played Atticus in the film, her father’s own pocket watch. It’s a loving tribute to the innocence of childhood. To Kill a Mockingbird means so many things to so many people. My personal hero Morris Dees says he became a lawyer because of Atticus Finch.

Happy 50th birthday, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Books That Change Lives

Last week Lifehacker asked its readers to vote for the books that changed their lives. I think the resulting list gives a lot of insight into the kind of readers Lifehacker has, but it also made me wonder what I would say if someone asked me to list books that had changed my life. Whenever I have to fill out profiles that ask for my favorite books, I always say “too many to list,” which is quite true, but I wonder if I can narrow down the books that changed my life? In no particular order, this is my list:

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This story of racism and prejudice in the Deep South profoundly affected me when I first read it in the 11th grade. If I recall, it was the only assigned reading in high school that I actually read ahead of the reading schedule. I really enjoyed that book. Since then, whenever I have shared it with students, I have fallen in love all over again — with the language, the characters, the story it tells. Harper Lee calls her novel “a love story” (the paperback version linked here includes this reference Lee makes on its back cover). It took me a long time to figure out what she meant, but I believe I understand.

Gone With the WindGone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

While today I find the characterization of the African-American characters to be at best romantic and at worst racist, I have to admit this book was my first “adult” novel and really taught me how amazing and wonderful the world of books could truly be. I took the book with me everywhere and read it whenever I had a free moment. It took me two or three weeks to finish the first time I read it. I think I will most likely always have a soft spot for this novel.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 10th Anniversary EditionHarry Potter Series, by J. K. Rowling

No other books have given me so much delight and have so frequently been on my re-reading cycle. Believe it or not, I have endured a lot of criticism for liking these books — some of it from people I am close to. I have had to defend my interest in these books to adults who think I should know better than to love children’s books. I just can’t understand why those people feel it necessary to be so narrow-minded and joyless. Why should they care? I fell in love with these books some time during my reading of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. If I had to select an exact moment, it might be when Hagrid shows up at the hut in the sea. In fact, my favorite scene in any of the books remains Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley to get his school supplies.

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Containing some of the most beautiful prose in American literature, The Great Gatsby remains one of my favorite books to teach. I have many of my favorite passages highlighted. I actually enjoy the language more than the plot of the story. I pulled out my favorite passages and wrote about them many years ago.

The Mists of AvalonThe Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

I know I really like a book when I finish and wish with all my heart that I had written it. Why I feel it necessary to make it even more mine than it is after having read it, I’m not sure, but I have felt it several times. However, I think the fist time I felt it was after reading this novel. I still maintain, even after ten years have passed since I read it, that it is the best rendition of the King Arthur story I’ve read. I’ve never looked at the character Morgan le Faye the same way since then (or Guinevere, for that matter). To me, this novel was pitch-perfect, or it was when I read it. I was enthralled by it.

I’m sure I could expand upon this list with a bit more thought. It would never include any Ayn Rand, however.