The Wonder of the Written Word

I'm a complete sucker for books about books, whether they're written by dedicated collectors or by passionate readers who talk about the works they love above all others. So when I was browsing recently in a bookstore and came across the title The Book That Changed My Life, I decided to shell out the $18 — a bargain by today's prices — and test the waters.

This compilation brings together 71 writers (the subhead calls them "remarkable") who discuss "the books that matter most to them." It's an unusual gathering, some of the folks being explicators of high culture, while others have more popular inclinations, from critics Harold Bloom and James Atlas to bestselling writers like Wally Lamb and Patricia Cornwell — with a stray senator thrown in for good measure. There were two editors involved, Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen; the publisher is Gotham Books.

Coady provides the introduction, which seems proper since, as founder of R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison, Conn., she would appear to be the driving force behind the work. (Johannessen has worked as an editor at several prestigious publishing houses, and so seems to have been utilized with that in mind.)

Coady tells a sweet anecdote from her childhood that underlines why books have proven to be the anchor in her life.

"My brother Gary was born in 1955 at Jewish Memorial Hospital on 197th Street in New York City. In those days, children were not allowed on the maternity floor, so my dad brought me and my sister Barbara around to the side of the hospital to 'visit' our mother, and there she was, four floors up, smiling down at us. As was her nature, she had gifts for us. From the window that day she dropped two Golden Books, one for me and one for Barbara. I think it was at that moment, with books falling from the sky, that the notion solidified in my 6-year-old mind that books were from heaven."

Even though reading became her passion as she grew older, and nothing pleased her more than talking about books with her friends, Coady majored in college in finance, accounting and tax law, and then took what she called "a 20-year detour" as a tax director for BDO Seidman in Manhattan. Only after this foray into the world of big business did she fulfill her true destiny of being a bookseller.

Someone Else Like Her

Her store, R.J. Julia, is a place that's been welcoming readers and writers for 16 years. Coady notes: "Every day in the store, we see how books change lives, in big ways and small, from the simple desire to spend a few quiet hours in a comfy chair, swept away by a story, to the profound realization that the reader is not alone in the world, that there is someone else like him or her, someone who has faced the same fears, the same confusions, the same grief, the same joys."

Coady says customers have shown her repeatedly the power that books can have over people. "[W]hen authors come to the store to read, I hear members of the audience tell them how their books evoke those emotions and speak to those needs. One summer night in 1994, with the temperature in the 90s and the store's air conditioning broken, Pete Hamill read to a packed room from A Drinking Life and stayed on for hours as one person after another came up to shake his hand or touch his arm and say that his book made them feel understood at last, as if he had told their story. When we hosted Alice Sebold for The Lovely Bones, a cop stood up to thank her for her first book, Lucky, her memoir of being raped. His wife had been raped, he said, and Alice had given her a voice at a time when she couldn't find her own."

All of this has fed into the creation of The Book That Changed My Life, which marks the 15th anniversary of the establishment of Coady's shop.

But there's an added element. As her business was chugging along, and Coady was being given confirmation of what books can mean in people's lives, she also understood that there were many children — especially — who were often not lucky enough to have exposure to books. So in 1997, she and a small group of like-minded people founded a nonprofit organization called Read to Grow, "which started with the simple idea that every baby born in our local hospital, Yale-New Haven, would receive a new book."

The organization has grown, and now has two basic components: Books for Babies and Books for Kids. Both provide support for family literacy by collecting and distributing gently used books to homes, schools, clinics and day-care centers. In fact, the purchase of The Book That Changed My Life pays for at least one such book for a deserving child.

The pieces gathered here are not really essays, but rather brief — sometimes, very brief — appreciations. There are wonderful stories told here but not a lot of depth; if that's what you're looking for, there are many other similar collections that would meet that expectation.

Among the book choices made are some repeated items, which is not often true of such anthologies. The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird get two votes each, and The Catcher in the Rye — surprise, surprise! — is mentioned by three different writers. There are other fairly expected titles: Charlotte's Web, for example, and A Child's Garden of Verses. And there are some flat out quirky ones like the Sears Catalogue.

But my favorites among these little pieces were the totally unexpected and the little known choices. As to the first category, Kate Atkinson highlights Pricksongs & Descants, a short-story collection by Robert Coover, an author who was popular in the 1960s and '70s, but is not much talked about today. It's good to hear that someone still reads him.

Gina Barreca's choice is Jean Kerr's The Snake Has All the Lines, which may be considered even more of a surprise than Coover. Kerr, the late wife of the famous drama critic Walter Kerr, was a wildly popular newspaper columnist and playwright of her day who offered a wonderful comic sense, sort of an earlier Erma Bombeck. No one seems to know of her today; maybe this will give her work a little boost, if readers can track down copies of her books.

Probably the strangest combination of titles came from poet Billy Collins, who chose Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. His explanation of this odd coupling illustrates what's best about The Book That Changed My Life:

"As far as geographical tourism goes, The Yearling, which my mother first read to me, lifted me out of a childhood in New York City and set me down in the scrubland of north Florida, where a barefoot boy was free to roam an exotic terrain of palmetto, orange groves and alligator swamps. Lolita, which I read secretly while ensconced in a Jesuit college, took me on a tour of an America I hadn't seen yet: a land of billboards, western scenery and cheesy motels. And, of course, a tour of strange love.

"What more deeply connects the two books — one written for children, the other about a seducer of children — is their capacity to expand the natural sympathies of the reader. A boy and his pet deer and a man and his nymphet seems an odd coupling, but they manage a similar effect. The plight of the deer and the fate of Lo arouse pity; but the doomed attempts to capture and control two essentially wild creatures elicit sympathy. No fence, however high, will contain the growing deer, and no amount of scheming and cajoling will keep the girl from growing into a woman. Her death in childbirth underscores, from Humbert's point of view, the fatal consequences of her maturation. If reading enlarges our sympathy for others, strangers mostly — here a boy and a man whose loves are doomed by their desire — then these two books, alien to each other, widened my world and awakened empathies I had never felt before."



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