Thursday, March 3, 2011

How Reading Changes Lives

"You know you've read a good book when you turn the last page
and feel a little as if you have lost a friend." --Paul Sweeney

Do you remember the first book ever that changed your life? Those early years when you graduated from picture books to chapter books, and the whole world opened up?  I don't remember the title of that first book for me, but I do remember it was a mystery, and the cover--showing a drawing of the main character peering into a dark woods and beckoning me to follow--promised intrigue and adventure. I was in the third grade, and my teacher had rewarded me for finishing an assignment by telling me to choose any book I wanted from the bookshelf at the back of the room. 
 I can still feel a sense of importance--me? Read a big kid's book? How exciting!

When did you first feel the call of books?

I'm reading Anna Quindlen's book, How Reading Changed My Life (Ballentine Books, 1998). It's a small book, with only four chapters and an appendix in the back that lists Ms. Quindlen's favorites (e.g. "10 Books That Will Help a Teenager Feel More Human," "The 10 Books I would Save in a Fire," and "10 Modern Novels That Made Me Proud to Be a Writer"), but don't let the size fool you. There's a great bit of wisdom between the pages. For example:

"...there was alway in me, even when I was very small, the sense that I ought to be somewhere else. And wander I did, although, in my everyday life, I had nowhere to go and no imaginable reason on earth why I would want to leave. The buses took to the interstate without me; the trains sped by. So I wandered the world through books. I went to Victorian England in the pages of Middlemarch and A Little Princess, and to Saint Petersburg before the fall of the tsar with Anna Karenina. I went to Tara, and Manderley, and Thornfield Hall, all those great houses, with their high ceilings and high drama, as I read Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, and Jane Eyre.

"...I have clear memories of that sort of life, of lifting the rocks in the creek that trickled through Naylor's Run to search for crayfish, of laying pennies on the tracks of the trolley and running to fetch them, flattened, when the trolley had passed. But at base it was never any good. The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life."

"...In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself."

"...I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning. I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth."

The first cardinal rule of being a writer is WRITE. The second is READ. But if we remember the thrill of reading as a child, we will read not because we "have" to--but because we want to. Yes, we'll read in order to wander through the world, bring life to imaginary characters, and learn about the craft of writing while we learn about ourselves. But more than that, we will read because we truly love to.

Only then, I think, will we have fun with writing. Life, energy and a great sense of story will flow across the pages we fill because, first of all, we love to read. It all works together, don't you think?

What book early on lit the fire for you? And how has reading changed your life? 


  1. That book sounds small but really packs a punch! Wow!!! :O)

  2. Oh this is a beautifully written post that makes me think. I love some of my older books as I was growing up like Little Women. I loved Jo and wanted to be her:)

  3. We had a set of six books called My Bookhouse Books, and they'd been bought by my grandmother for my mother, in 1925. I so cherished those books, and now one of my daughters has taken them and is reading them to her children.

    Reading has opened up the world to me. How would I know about India if I hadn't read Forster's A Passage to India, for example.

  4. My first book that changed my life - I'm on the speakers circuit and I'm still telling people about that moment - it was The Wind in the Willows, and it was partly responsible for me writing children's books today.

  5. it never occurred to me that i want to write not until i dive myself to books and read 'em, i like reading a lot..,

  6. This post had me hunting for memories (one of my favorite activities!). This is kind of funny, but I actively remember reading my first big kid book on a road trip with the family--the title was "The Waltons: The Bird Dog" and I couldn't have been more than five years old. I read each word individually and had no idea what the actual book was about, but I was so proud to tell my parents, "I read it! I read that whole book! Every word!"

  7. I just cannot imagine a life without reading, Kenda. Perhaps I started writing because as a kid I used to love reading.

  8. That's funny that so many have one moment - I think every book from picture to giant print - changes us.
    I was read to as a child - I loved going into the dark creepy woods with Hansel and Gretel. I liked the big bad wolf and Jungle Book and Robin Hood.
    My First Grown up book - Stephen King's "The Stand" (thanks Mom for handing that to a 12 year old - and telling me to skip anything I felt was to raunchy - Not HER opinion - mine.) Maybe that is the moment? The moment when I was told so much by my Mom's simple action?
    - you have to take and leave what you want out of a book. You should decide what is appropriate to read - nobody else. Just because you are a child - does not mean you are only allowed to be living in sparklebear land - you can go in the creepy woods on your own - it's your journey - your life.
    And - hang on kid - this little book thing may get out of hand.

    I still read to my eleven year old - (the 17er joins us sometimes if I will read my stories out loud)
    Understand - he reads above high school level and devours military history - I didn't ever read them picture books except during the day. I read them older books -

    That joy of sharing discovery just before they dream is why I still read to them.

    Parents of small people - just so you know - I never had to Make them go to bed - they may have little eyes still open during an exciting part later than you plan. But my little pitter and patter - begged to go to bed -early so I had to read longer. It is a commitment - every night no matter what - 1 hour for your kids - but every book changes them too.

  9. Thanks, all, for sharing childhood favorites--and a taste of the joy you take in reading, too! And HowLynn--your testimony to reading to your kids--no matter their ages--is right on! Some of my most favorite memories include when my daughter, around 8 or 9 at the time, and I would grab pillows and squirrel away in an out-of-the way place to read Little House on the Prairie books, The Secret Garden, or Anne of Green Gables. I loved those days :-) Thanks for sparking the memories...

  10. I loved this post. It was so beautifully written and made me realize how much I truly love reading. I always have a book with me, no matter where I am. I've read all my life, and, like Rachna, I wonder if that's where my desire to write came from. So many books in childhood had an impact on me, I can't really pick the definitive one.

    And by the way, I am a huge Anna Quinlan fan.

  11. I've been reading some classic short stories and love them. Why don't we read short stories anymore? I know they do in English classes, but not so much in the real world.
    Anyhow, I saw your comments on the blog Word Worlds and Wings and thought I would stop by and say hello. I'm your newest follower now.
    My blog is

  12. A Wrinkle in Time!! That book was life changing. It not only had a spirit of magic, but it brewed some writerly magic deep inside me. It was an amazing experience!

  13. Lol I loved your post too - as you saw it got me thinking of one for my own blog - thanks Sparky for the ideas....

  14. Sounds like such a fun book! I think Robin McKinley's Beauty changed my life. I loved it so much and wanted my life to be like Beauty's (even though she struggles plenty throughout). I loved the escape of it all.