When a big city newspaper asked readers to share the title of a book, one “influencing how you think, act or look at the world,” the editors were overwhelmed by more than a thousand responses. Most readers chose fiction over non-fiction guides as windows into their thinking or as change agents to challenge their rock solid views.
Age was no definer. If Dr. Seuss’, “On Beyond Zebra,” a fantasy alphabet for pre-schoolers, had captured you as an audience, by all means, share the story. A reader, age 70, did. For him, the Seuss alphabet, a tongue-twister and challenge to repeat, had delighted him as a 7-year-old. He was charmed, he wrote, by rolling fantasy words off his tongue: “Floob” for the letter “F”, “zatz” for the letter “Z.”
The reader of decades recalled the giggles of his childhood as he read to his own children and grandchildren. “On Beyond Zebra” reminded him the imaginations of the young should be encouraged by the adults in the room.
One 9-year-old wrote to the newspaper as witness to the charms of the book “Eloise,” the story of a savvy young girl, who, in the face of absent parents, depends on the staff at the hotel where she lives. “Eloise” is wise beyond her years, and, on pages depicting her life, she is living proof, for city children, “family can be found, created even in a place as big as New York.”
The writer’s letter to the newspaper affirmed the neighborhood adults in her own life as borrowed kin with kindnesses to recommend them.
In our grown-up world of realities, death is a subject we avoid. The recollection of Dr. Paul Kalanith’s personal journey “When Breath Becomes Air,” after a diagnosis of lung cancer, led a reader to confront her aversion to serious talks with her aging parents.
After reading Dr. Kalanith’s moving story, she set about asking the hard questions regarding her mother’s and father’s wishes and committed to the nurture needed in the realities of their days, opening new conversation about their end-of-life questions and seeing them through their frailties with more understanding and patience.
One letter to the newspaper looked back over a lifetime of reading and singled out, of all choices, a cookbook — Julia Child’s, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking ” — as chapters re-ordering a life.
The reader’s story centered on her promising beginning, living in a city as a new bride, excited over a serious first job. She was 21, a career woman, (she thought), until she discovered she was pregnant.
It was 1964 when a woman “with child” was not welcomed in the corporate world. Her firm fired her, but, as a peace offering, an office manager sent her off with Julia Child’s cookbook. After a miserable two months of nausea, the young wife, stuck at home, forced herself to read a chapter of the book and deal with the inner parts of a raw chicken.
By the time her baby was born, she was a serious student of French cooking, perfecting a passable soufflé. Years later, she wrote of a life more loyal to weight control, but of a confidence found in mastering difficult recipes. While friendless, she dried her homesick tears and set about whipping cream in a shoebox-sized kitchen.
In an interesting twist, a reader singled out a book with a message she could not accept. For her, Ayn Rand’s, “Atlas Shrugged” read as a tome on personal self-reliance, setting aside the realities of interdependence in relationships, the need for the nurturing of children or an obligation to those lost in a busy world.
Reading the book strengthened the reader’s resolve to be involved, rather than self-focused. She wrote to credit the novel as a change agent in her life, one helping her to see outreach as needed connection and pushing her to speak out in her community.
I once read a small book to a grandchild, a boy, who loved any story that rhymed. Quiet as a mouse, he sat, snuggled against me, until I turned the last page, then he reached to close the book and covered his ears.
It took a while before I understood he avoided the last page of the story because he did not want it to end. None of my reasoning could change his mind. I gave up on my pleas once I remembered I had taken a paper clip to a chapter of William Styron’s novel, “Sophie’s Choice,” to avoid reading the words I knew would seal the fate of two children in the plot.
The small boy to whom I read is now 18. He is still prone to stop and open a book — bound and close at hand. Luckily, a future of reading promises him endless chapters, pages of words, perhaps the very ones, destined to change his life.