Thursday, August 7, 2014

From Lottie Moon to In Cold Blood -- My Life-Changing Books

I love to read. When I was a kid, nothing was better to me than finding a book that I really liked and reading it from cover to cover. I had much rather stay sedentary and read than go outside and get all hot and dirty. My love of reading didn't help my rather chunky physique.

I had lots of favorites like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, but my most favorite genre was non-fiction, especially biographies and autobiographies. The one book I most remember from my childhood was an autobiography of Lottie Moon, a Baptist missionary who served in China. I checked that book out of the Union Springs public library several times. I thought Lottie led such an adventurous life -- single woman moves to the land of infidels to share God's word. I honestly thought about being a missionary just like Lottie and traveling to some exotic location. Alas, with age, the desire to serve as a missionary went away.



When I was in middle school, I started reading more advanced works of "literature." My dad was a big reader and like many people, kept his current novel in the bathroom. As an adult, I now know that it was the only door he could lock to get away from the rest of the family. The book he left in the bathroom that got me into mass-market smut books was Harold Robbins' The Carpetbaggers. One look at the cover of the book and I knew it was something I shouldn't be reading; therefore, I had to do it.


The description on says, "A LEGENDARY MASTERPIECE - A STORY OF MONEY AND POWER, SEX AND DEATH. Jonas Cord coveted his father's fame, fortune, even his young, beautiful wife. When his father died, Jonas swore to possess them all. But Rina Marlow was the celebrated screen goddess no man could master. Her sizzling sensuality might inflame and enthrall millions, but her personal boudoir was no Hollywood fantasy. She consumed her lovers on the fiery rack of her burning desires."

I don't remember anything about this book, but I ask you, what middle school age girl wouldn't want to read this kind of trash?

This novel is in the life-changing category because over the next year or two, I read every one of Harold Robbins' books. I then went on to John Jakes’ North and South, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and its sequels,  and of course, Jacqueline Susanne’s Valley of the Dolls. This is when I started my habit of finding an author I liked and reading everything written by him or her. I might have been reading trash, but I read a lot of trash which increased my reading vocabulary (even the words I shouldn't know) and speed.  The Carpetbaggers might be worth a re-read now to see if it still captivates me. 


In college, I read a book that stayed with me, even in my sleep -- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I love and hate this book. I love it because of the writing style and the dedication Capote had to telling the story of the murder of the Clutter family in Kansas. He presented the murderers, Dick and Perry, in such a way that I saw into the mind of a sociopath. After reading it, I couldn't get it out of my mind; I replayed the murders, the last days of Nancy Clutter, the eventual capture and deaths of Dick and Perry. It's the first book I just couldn't shake. 



Because I'm an English teacher, I have had to read and teach many works. I love teaching Shakespeare, Southern Gothic lit, and other classics. More recently, the book that had a great impact on me as a woman and a teacher is A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. When I teach this book to high school seniors, I work so hard to make them understand the power of the words in this book.


This book is so much more than a story about characters in a foreign land during a war: it's a powerful message about the treatment of women, not only in the Middle East but anywhere. One line from the book that I particularly love is when the father tells his daughter that “society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated.” When I share that with my students, I feel like Oprah or Gloria Steinem, inspiring young girls to go forward and seek knowledge in order to better their lives and society.

The most recent book I read that had supreme staying power is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I have already written a post about that book and how much I love it (The Goldfinch), so I'll share a rather recent one that is still firm in my un-firm memory -- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. 

The description on reads:  Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta's cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can't afford health insurance.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of those “shake-my-head” books, the kind that makes you think about injustices, ethics, and greed. 

In searching my memory for these life-changing books, I find that I have come full circle in my love for biographies. I've read many, many books, from classics to smut, but the important thing is that I have a true love of reading, of learning about lands I'll never visit, about the injustices in our society, and about me. 

What life-changing books have you read?