My mother ruled over our home with unusually high energy, unfiltered opinions and unbridled passions for the arts, music, and books. Passions, you know? Like where you are swept away with the flow of something much grander than you thought you were capable of being. We were swept away daily with the sounds of Gershwin, Porter, Vivaldi and Saint Saens floating through the air, by our bookshelves loaded with Funck and Wagnalls’, classic novels by Flaubert and Austen, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and many heavy, beautiful art tomes. Yes, ours was a home bubbling over with passion where each of us six children shied away from her arched eyebrow but thrilled to the experiences she afforded us. Nonetheless, we learned not to lay around on the couch watching black-and-white Shirley Temple movies on Saturday mornings, or else we’d hear from the kitchen, “Turn off that television! I have a job for you.”
But one gloomy, summer morning just after we’d moved from a neighborhood filled with our best friends, I—a self-conscious pre-teen of ten—made the mistake of saying “I’m bored” within mother’s earshot. Big mistake. I realized, too late, that I was in for a dust rag and a can of Pledge. But instead of saddling me with an arduous chore, she walked into my bedroom and said, “Go read a book.” And with that she walked away. Quickly, however, she came back and said, “Go to the library and find Beautiful Joe.”
Well, I was that bored. So I did.
Carrying Marshall Saunders’ book under my arm like ill-gotten lucre, I headed up to my boring old pink-and-white bedroom and started in. It was my first real experience with reading. And with being swept away on a magical carpet of wonder. Oh, sure, I’d read the Dick and Jane series and many of those orange-covered biographies in our school library, but they were mundane, utterly predictable. But this…this was different. We’d always had dogs in our house, but this dog, this Beautiful Joe, introduced me to what he was feeling through his voice, with his pain and trials and empathy. I was swept away into Beautiful Joe’s world of unutterable love flavored by sorrow. As I recall, I finished it by nightfall. And cried for his suffering and triumphs. My self-conscious-self broadened that day into something much grander than my previous one. Perhaps reading Beautiful Joe was my first connection to the wonder of the eternal through the eyes of another.
Isn’t that what reading is about?
Then I became bored. Again. This time it was my sister Sally who encouraged me to read Gone with the Wind. But after lifting it off our library shelf, I realized that while it may be good, it was exceptionally looooooong. Still, I trusted my sister Sally’s advice—Sally who’d shepherded me through many of life’s small treacheries, like the time she held her hands, horse-blinker-like, at the sides of my eyes shielding me from the screaming obscenity splashed across the viaduct’s cement as we passed under on our walk to the beach.
So, once again, I dug in, slogging through the first fifty-page rationale of the Civil War’s genesis, thinking I’ll never like this book like Beautiful Joe. But then, oh then, she came on the scene. Dressed in a small-waisted white frock dotted with green appliqués and a picture hat tied with velvet, surrounded by boys eager to sit by her side and only too eager to run off to battle to “end this fight fast,” Scarlet captured my soul. “Fiddle-dee-dee” and “I’ll think about that tomorrow” swirled about me. Margaret Mitchell’s lush descriptions of Rhett Butler’s womanizing and bon vivant ways, Melanie’s shy but soft-spoken kindness, Mammy’s great and expansive fussy love of both Scarlett and red petticoats, and even Ashley Wilkes’ weak-sistery old-South manners danced in a rapturous waltz inside me for days. By reading Gone with the Wind, I understood the initial excitement, then horror of a battle cries’ blustery carnage—of tramping, raw feet and bleeding loyalties, of near starvation and unnecessary death brought on by the destructive impact of war, of the selfless love required for a soul to grow into something grander than it started out to be.
I don’t think I emerged from that hot and stuffy third floor bedroom for two weeks until Rhett’s cutting farewell—“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”—left me breathless. Left me being swept away by the enormity of lost love and an era ever-changed.
Throughout the years, many books have swept me into the wonder of something eternal. Books like Abraham Verghese’s Cutting For Stone, Barbara Kingsolvers’ Poisonwood Bible, John Fowles’ The Magus, Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys, Brian Doyles’ Mink River, Richard Powers’ The Overstory, John Irvings’ Prayer for Owen Meany, Toni Morrison’s Beloved. I could go on and on.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically talk about Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides as something which swept me away, whose Prologue itself is so moving, that I used to read it to my AP English classes once a year. “Come in. Sit down and get comfortable. I’m going to read you something that will shuffle you off this mortal coil…and give you pause.” Conroy’s artful yet truthful use of language, his tales of savior tigers, of fraternity fails, of grandparent idiosyncrasies made me howl with both laughter and pain. Every time I read it, Prince of Tides carries me, body and soul, into both the salt flats of South Carolina’s Low Country and to the city of Manhattan where the hubris of the north clashes with the tattered soul of the south—in love, in perspective, and in abuses through Tom Wingo’s troubled soul. Which, I came to find out, was Conroy’s own. I heard him speak a year before he died of pancreatic cancer when I was fortunate enough to tell him what he meant to me, to my AP English students, to my mother and siblings who loved his novel as much as I did.
A book breaks open the heart so that love—and shock and grief and growth—start to pour inside. Like hands clasped tight-to-the-chest in prayer, are novels. Fuel for something to ignite us, grander and brighter than anything we ever thought we could be.