What If…..

What if a book leaves us unchanged?

People read books for all sorts of reasons: entertainment, information, because someone (or everyone) else is… but what if we read a book, and it makes an impact, reaches out and punches us right in the heart? And what if we cry, and swear that we will change the world that could hold such horrid truths as, oh, say, Grapes of Wrath. Or Tess of the D’urbervilles. Or even Hunger Games–which may not have the staying power of those first two, but still packs quite a wallop in the interesting metaphor and parable of social justice departments.

What if we say all that, and then we pick up the next book in the stack–or advertised on the side of the bus–and keep reading?

Does it still count, that we cried, that we felt what the characters felt, saw the injustice, the fear, the hurt? Or did it never happen? Because it really didn’t happen, did it, that thing that left us shaking until we looked up and realized we were just riding the subway, holding a paperback.

Unless it did happen. Inside us. I can count hundreds of books I’ve read in the last few years, but ask which ones changed me, and I can count them on my fingers. The Smallmart Revolution. The House of Sand and Fog. And the Band Played On. A book of short stories called Hunger by Lan Chang. Rory Stewart’s Prince of the Marshes.  Kite Runner. To Kill a Mockingbird. The Children’s Story by James Clavell. Rumer Godden’s translation of Prayers from the Ark.  I can also tell you exactly what they did, in order: changed where I shopped; sent me to volunteer at a refugee center; taught me to be embarrassed at some of the church rhetoric surrounding AIDS; made me a better Cultural Studies professor, x3; gave me my first naive understandings of white privilege; scared the shit out of me; and renewed my faith in innocence.

I can’t list such specifics for most of the books I’ve read. Every book we absorb lays a foundation, yes, puts another brick in the walls of our beliefs, anchors our approach to life. Every word is valuable–or at least being able to access it is valuable. But not every work changes us, does it? The ones that suddenly, before we can defend against it, turn us sideways, tilt our world’s axis–well, when I sit back and think about, I’m surprised at how small a list that is. I remember passages and themes from many books, but when I think about the ones that visibly affected the way I think, act, speak—–the list shrinks.

So, which book(s) shaped you, turned you into who you are now, or filed away the rough edges of what you used to think? Which books made you say “what if” and then stick with “if?”

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6 Comments

Filed under Big Stone Gap, book reviews, folklore and ethnography

6 responses to “What If…..

  1. Terell

    Excellent essay on books.

  2. I’d say Green Eggs and Ham, followed by the Giving Tree. 😉

  3. The Children’s Story/Tess of the D’Urbervilles/The Bell Jar/The It Doesn’t Matter Suit/And The Band Played On/Jane Eyre [Age 12 – Taught me to keep one eye open for dictators – always][Age 10 – The world can be unjust even to the kindest of people][Age 17 – Taught me to question everything- even ‘reality’][Age 19 – Happiness is there to take, don’t rifle through all of it – just have the joy][Age 10 – Taught me everything ‘the world at large’ was trying to keep hidden from ‘little old me’ about ” ‘the large world problem’ & AIDS”][Age 8 – Happiness can happen – but if it is really, truly, worth it – you are going to have to wait for it!]

  4. Human Scale, by Kirkpatrick Sale. Nudged my whole white american middle class paradigm out of its comfort zone. A book whose title I can’t remember, that I won at a La Leche League raffle when I was pregnant with my second child — something about building your child’s self-esteem. Caught me at a time when I was ready to entertain ideas about childrearing that had never occurred to my parents or grandparents. Knowing Woman: A Feminine Psychology, by Irene de Castillejo. The Cheneysville Incident, by David Bradley. Another paradigm shifter, this time about race.

    Thanks for asking.

  5. nice thank you for sharing most informative ideas

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