The Book That Changed My Life

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I grew up homeschooled, erratic books and lesson plans, some years all straight-up, hard-core smart kid math books, other years we just read Laura Ingalls Wilder and tried to make acorn pancakes ourselves (not so tasty, as it turns out). This was before the phrase “unschooling” was on anyone’s lips and most people thought us a strange and wild bunch. After a mighty struggle to read (various testings for dslexia, the words all knotting up my mind and in my mouth) suddenly the dams burst forth. I was a reader from that day forward.

I chose to be homeschooled much longer than my sisters, for various reasons (a main one was that I could get all my work done in an hour or two and be free to read or teach myself the electric bass or start a dog-walking company whenever it pleased me). When I was about to start my junior year of high school my family up and moved to a small town in central Oregon. The public school there was small, focused on the arts, and with a breathtaking view of the Three Sisters mountains. I decided I could get by there just fine and enrolled.

My English teacher was a large, somewhat stern woman who I now recognize as having a very wry sense of humor. The grown-up children in her class both bemused and bored her (it was a small town school injected with some very rich and very privileged kids). I don’t remember what she taught; I know we had to write research papers and all that but it was all a bit of a blur. Whatever she assigned for us to do in class I would do as quickly as possible. And with a nod to my unschooling ways I would stand up and go to the shelves that lined the classroom, pick up a book, sit on the floor, and start to read.

I did this, class after class (The House on Mango Street and The Bean Trees were two of my favorites). My teacher once came over to my and smiled down. You know, she said, you can take one of those books home to read if you would like. I just looked up at her and smiled, shaking my head. I was good, on the floor, in a corner, lost in my own world. It had always been my favorite place to be.

One day I picked up the book Night by Elie Wiesel. In the middle of class, reading the first few chapters, I soon realized this was a story about the Holocaust as I had never read it. Here was lament, here were the prayers for the dead being screamed out in anguish. Here was a baby being thrown up in the air and being caught on a bayonet, right in front of her mother. Here was doubt, doubt in a good God, personified. Here was the terrible world, laid bare before my 15-year-old self.

I laid the book on the floor. Deep, shaking sobs started and they just couldn’t stop. The classroom, busily working on writing out sources, stopped; the teacher stared, then turned concerned. I got up and ran to the bathroom, unable to smooth over the deep well of feelings that had been unearthed.

I never did recover, from that, my first shock of the horrible, brutal ways in which humans treat each other. It was a veil being lifted. It was the thin veneer of respectability, of denial, of distancing being scraped away. I was still a child, but I knew: it had happened, it was still happening, and I don’t want it to ever happen again.

I went back to the classroom, water splashed on my face. I sat back down on the floor, not knowing if people were still staring. I picked up the book and continued to read, both compelled and fearful of what would be asked of me in response. But as Wiesel documented his doubt, mine never grew. Another world is possible shivered underneath my idealistic self. But even then, I knew: it will never come if we don’t face up to how very far away that beautiful kingdom still is.

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Night is one of many books that changed my life. There are so many stories of words changing me, of causing my heart to be just slightly less rock-hard and impenetrable. I’d like to take the next few weeks and invite some of my writer friends to write just a little bit about the books that were a part of shaping, softening, and changing them.

In the fall, likely around the end of September, I will do a round-up type of thing where I will be asking all of y’all to contribute. So be thinking, even now: what are the books that changed you?

As we move on in the world, trying every day not to be hardened to the way things are–books have been a vital part of helping me see in a new way. And I suspect it has been the same for you.

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8 thoughts on “The Book That Changed My Life

  1. skmooney says:

    I read The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare when I was 11 years old. It really humanized Jesus for me and helped me realize that a work of art does not have to be explicitly Christian in order to depict the gospel in a truly beautiful way. Reading it again later on in high school proved it to be just as moving even the second time around. As I’m typing this now, I’m feeling inspired to read it once more as an adult… thanks for your post! Night is on my to-read list as well.

  2. Lynda Summerville says:

    I’m the friend of Laura Leis who went to the train store with you and your daughter a couple of years ago. I read your blog often with admiration for your talent. Laura and my son, Brandon, are getting married this Saturday at the House on Metolius near Camp Sherman. Hopefully, the helicopters will not be landing for the nearby fires.
    Just wanted to update you if you had not heard the exciting news.
    Keep up the super work you are doing!!

  3. Marilyn says:

    I read this and cried. That book had a profound affect on me as well. I read it about the same age during our 3-month break from boarding school. And then a couple years later I read Dawn, the second book of his. Thank you for your ability to capture this event so well and how it changed you.

  4. Liza says:

    I’m a librarian. I cannot tell you how excited I am for this series!

  5. LOVE this idea. Totally on board to talk books all day long 🙂

    (was there anything specific that helped you with your struggle to read? I have one like that – getting her tested next week, and I’m wracking my brain over it, terrified she’ll never be a reader. Yay, you gave me hope!)

    • oh, Caris! for some reason it just took a lot of time . . . I was around 7 when the words just seemed to unknot themselves in my brain. The testing was always inconclusive for me, but I still have trouble mixing up certain letters.

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