My Life in Books

By Thursday, October 17, 2019 , , , , ,

James P. Blaylock wrote, “A writer’s library is more than just a collection of books. It is also a piecemeal biography of that writer’s life.” This quote appeared in his essay “My Life in Books: A Meditation on the Writer’s Library.” If you know me, you know that books have always been important in my life. Reading has long been one of my favorite hobbies, pastimes, escapes, and leisure activities. So, recently, I’ve tried to step back and evaluate the books that influenced the different periods of my life and what they taught me. It was moving and enjoyable to look back and reflect on the books that felt most tied to various life stages, and thusly to what I was learning at the time, even subconsciously.

Age 7-8: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—Faith and Magic
This was one of the first books that captured my imagination. My second-grade teacher read it aloud to our class and the magic of Narnia thrilled me instantly. I was in that snowy wood with Lucy, I trembled before Aslan along with her and Susan and Peter, and I personally experienced the girls’ anguish and then joy as Aslan was sacrificed and miraculously resurrected. It’s the first book in my memory that made me feel a serious emotional connection to its characters, setting, and outcome. And even though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, this story instructed my young mind in the gospel and the character of Christ in an accessible way. It was an early building block for my childlike faith and is still a reminder to me of how all good stories point us to the greatest story of all, Christ’s story of redemption.

Age 9-10: The Secret Garden—Suspense and Growing Up
I think my mom read this aloud to my sister and me when I was in third grade. The setting of the windswept Yorkshire moors with a secluded garden hidden somewhere on them captivated me instantly, and I rooted for Mary hard as she matured and became determined to solve the mysteries of Misselthwaite Manor. I think this was the first book that showed me the power of suspense in a story. I remember begging my mom to just read one more chapter, and even after she finished it, I reread it on my own and would sneak chapters under the covers after bedtime. It was also one of those early books that made me feel emotionally connected to characters. Mary and Colin are spoiled brats when the reader first meets them, but they grow up and learn to look outside themselves and to love others as the story progresses. And that growth occurs slowly as they work to make the garden bloom again. I loved it, even though I couldn’t have explained that parallel as a child. I just knew that these children could be better people, that they had to solve the mysteries around them, and that both of those things would benefit them and others in the story. And I was all there for it.

Preteen/Young Teenager: Anne of Green Gables—Imagination, Beauty, and Joy
Anne Shirley was perhaps my first legitimate fictional role model. From the moment I met her in the pages of L.M. Montgomery’s first book of the Anne series, I wanted to be more like Anne and to be frolicking across Prince Edward Island with her. I loved how wholeheartedly Anne loved people and poetry and beautiful things, regardless of how others often thought she was odd for her effusiveness. She was so full of joy and shared it constantly with the people around her. She also valued truly valuable things like family, friends, home, and beauty. Unbeknownst to me, Anne was teaching me to notice beautiful things, however small they might be, and to cherish the right things as she was learning to do the same throughout her story. I learned from Anne to look beyond the boundaries of my limited place in the world—to dream, to cultivate imagination, and to step into other worlds and perspectives often. These things were key to Anne’s growth and her development taught me the value of them.

Teenager: Pride and Prejudice—Love of Literature
Jane Austen took me by storm as a teenager and it all began with Pride and Prejudice. The movie, that is. I know, I know. I’m a book-is-always-better and book-first person too. But for whatever reason, I didn’t know much about Jane Austen when the movie was coming out, so I went to see it without realizing there was a famed novel behind it. And I was spellbound as I sat in the theater watching the drama of Elizabeth and Darcy unfold. The love story melted my tender 13-year-old heart, and those sweeping shots of the English countryside had me undone. I was entirely caught up in my own inner world for hours after that first viewing, and for many weeks following, all I wanted to do was watch the movie again and again. Months later, I read the book and devoured it, and I would go on to read it many more times throughout my teen and college years. Now, I’ve read all of Austen’s novels, have visited her house in England, and still name Pride and Prejudice as a favorite book. I look back on that period of getting to know Austen and Pride and Prejudice with gratitude and usually many smiles. Before, I had always loved reading, but I credit Austen with further honing my love for quality literature. I saw fairly quickly that both Elizabeth and Darcy had to grow and learn hard lessons before their happy ending, and even as a teenager, I appreciated that and understood that the audience could very well be learning similar truths alongside them. Now, I also receive great enjoyment from Austen’s wry humor and wit and love how groundbreaking her work was for her time period. I’m fairly certain that everything I’ve learned from her now plays a role in how I analyze everything I read. Thanks, Jane.
Young Adult: Poldark Series—Beautiful Prose and Complicated Narrative
I found Winston Graham’s Poldark novels through the recent BBC TV series. I was instantly intrigued by the story and quickly picked up the books after the first season aired. Once I started reading, I was amazed that I’d never heard of them before adulthood and have since savored every page. For me, the Poldark books strike a balance between highly emotional suspense and thoughtful beauty that makes me want to linger over every word. There are phenomenal action plots in them, but at their core, the stories are about relationships of every sort, the complexity of relationships, and how relationships change over many years. And Winston Graham’s narrative voice tells it all in truly stunning prose. There have been numerous times in my reading of these books that I’ve had to stop after reading a particular sentence or paragraph just to soak in the meaning and to marvel at how beautifully it was written. The first several books in the 12-volume series were some of the first books I read after college, and they reminded me of what I love about reading—well-written stories, emotionally resonant characters who change and grow, and engaging narrative—while also stretching me and challenging me in how I notice and appreciate word usage, descriptive narration, and even authorial plot choices. I’ve rarely encountered a book series that inspires such lively debate among readers as the Poldark series, and I’ve been challenged to analyze my opinions closely. I also came to this series when my love of British history and culture was firmly ingrained, and the 1780s setting on the wild Cornwall coast in Poldark has provided a truly delightful outlet for that to develop further.

Twenty-Something: Harry Potter Series; Surprised by Oxford—Comfort in Trial and Transition
I can imagine two possible reactions to this heading. One, did I really not read Harry Potter until I was in my twenties?! And two, what could Harry Potter and Surprised by Oxford possibly have in common? Both thoughts are valid :) But yes, I really did read Harry Potter for the first time at 24, and I’m actually glad of that. And to the other possible reaction, Harry Potter and Surprised by Oxford really don’t have much in common, except that both are set in the U.K., and both were used by God to be great comforts and reminders of His goodness and beauty during a difficult period of my life. I read both during a season of many frustrations, low-grade depression, uncertainty about the future, unemployment, and reorienting after one of my best friends had undergone cancer treatments.

All of this was during a period after college. For a while, I felt directionless and sad and stuck. Later, my move to DC was decided for several months out, so that promised a change, but in the interim, I was unemployed and still nervous about what the future held. Meanwhile, my close friend was trying to recover from chemo treatments, and even though she was mercifully cancer-free, I still felt on edge after having watched her battle the disease. It was during all of this that I read Surprised by Oxford and the Harry Potter series. The former is a quietly lyrical and poignant memoir of an English professor who slowly converted to Christianity during her post-graduate studies in Romantic Literature at Oxford. The latter is, of course, J.K. Rowling’s famed fantasy series about a boy wizard with a heavy responsibility.

These books hold deep meaning for me because of how they comforted and strengthened me during a difficult time. I relate strongly to Carolyn Weber, the author of Surprised by Oxford, because she loves literature and England. And what a beautiful story of redemption she tells as she recounts her journey to saving faith. I was reminded through her testimony that the Lord pursues his children persistently and intentionally. Carolyn was hard, cynical, distrusting, and self-reliant when she arrived at Oxford. But God met her where she was, and he came for her through the seemingly ordinary events of her studies and through the intellect that she came to Oxford in hopes of sharpening. He showed up in her conversations, friends, studies, and beloved books time and again, slowly softening her heart and drawing her to himself. I was moved, amused, wrung, challenged, and encouraged as I read of her gradual transformation.

Meanwhile, Rowling’s Harry Potter series struck chords of hope, childlike wonder, curiosity, joy, and love deep inside me. This series is marketed as children’s literature, and I can understand that to an extent, but I think it ultimately does somewhat of a disservice to these books that have just as much for adults as for children. Harry and his friends are children in the beginning, but they are forced to grow up quickly because of the evil that hunts them, and they wrestle with profound questions pertinent to all ages. The pages of this series are soaked in themes of good and evil, life and death, sacrificial love, unwavering friendship, and courage in deep darkness. Despite the fantastical setting, the characters feel as real and normal as your everyday friends, and, just like us, they, too, are trying to finish schoolwork, figure out friendships and romances, and face the bigger issues of their world bravely. This series became an escape and comfort for me during a trying time, but even since that period, the Harry Potter books have continued to affirm to me the power of imagination and good storytelling, and they have become solid, comforting reminders for me of how good ultimately triumphs over evil, of how love conquers death, and of the value of courage amidst great trial.

Books are not only a hobby or a pastime to me, but also memorials to lessons learned and periods of growth throughout different life stages. What have been the most impactful books for you as a child, teenager, or adult? I’d love to hear!

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