Why do we read books?
For some of us, books provide our principal source of
information about things, places and people. We read to be
informed. For others, we look to books for entertainment – for
those laugh-out-loud moments and sweet segments that we
enjoy and recall with pleasure.
Books are travel agents, transporting us to different lands and
different times. Books can broaden our perspective and deepen
our understanding of self and others. They can provide a quiet
respite from a chaotic and unsettling world.
Some books challenge our paradigms and force us to look at the
Others remind us that we are not alone; that there are people in
the world like us, and while the specifics of their life experience
may differ from ours, their experience of life rings true.
In this era of sound bites and misinformation, broadcast 24/7,
a constant stream of messages sent over the internet, Facebook,
Tweets, and Twitters with little attention to facts, style,
grammar, or even capital letters for god’s sake, to hold a book,
especially one you have borrowed, turning the pages slowly, as
others did before you, soaking in the words, enjoying the
pictures they inspire, appreciating the craft as well as the
content, seems almost counter-cultural: a political statement, of
sorts, like the collective action outraged librarians took when
they refused to adhere to the Patriot Act requirement that they
share their patrons’ reading records – ready to destroy the
computerized subscriber lists in resistance to government
Our choice of book is a private matter. We are free to read what
we choose. And, what we read helps to inform who we are.
A year or so ago, while wandering in one of my favorite
independent bookstores – The Stand near Union Square in
Manhattan, New York – a book caught my attention.
(I believe books sometimes call out to you. Anyway, this book
The Book That Changed My Life edited by Roxanne J. Coady and
Joy Johannessen, published by Gotham Books, New York, 2006.
It features seventy-one writers who name the book that most
changed each of their lives, and how and why it impacted them
as it did. What a gem!
First the reader is presented with a fabulous list of books worth
reading (or re-reading, as the case may be). Second, through
these short essays we are introduced to the writing of seventy-
one authors, inspiring more additions to our personal ‘must-
read’ list. And finally, we are reminded of why books are
important – and what the writer does to produce an enduring
and impactful publication.
As I meandered through the book, I recollected an early read
that changed me – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith,
first published in 1943. I was about ten years old when I pulled
this book from the massive wooden bookshelves of the Baker
Street branch of the Bakersfield library, an old, grand building
constructed of white marble blocks with broad steps leading to
its entrance. The rooms, a cool comfort, coming in out of the
striking summer heat were furnished with oversized wooden
tables and substantial wooden chairs, chairs that surrounded
me, and left my feet dangling above the marble floor. It was
silent there, save for the clip-clipping of the librarian’s heels as
she crossed the room.
While my experiences were quite different from Francie’s – her
family newly immigrated, mine well-established in this country;
she, living in the big city of Brooklyn, NY, and I living in a small
farming town in Central California; her family poor, her father,
an alcoholic, and my family comfortable and stable – like
Francie, I was struggling to figure out who I was separate from
my family. For me, she was a kindred spirit, and Betty Smith’s
book was like a bridge from the West Coast to the East,
connecting me with Francie and in turn, with myself.
Before I found A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, I had resisted reading.
It seemed that my parents (and even my younger brother, for
that matter) were so much smarter than I. They were fast
readers with big vocabularies. I read slowly and struggled to
focus. My parents perused the papers each morning and
discussed in depth the stories of the day, stories that did not
interest me. I felt dumb and defeated, and so turned my
attention to relationships. People are what interested me. I was
social rather than intellectual, I thought. I did not want to
But that summer when I was ten, at my mother’s
encouragement, I joined a summer reading program at the
Library and Francie Nolan showed me the importance of books.
I saw how reading in some ways saved her from her strained
home life and helped her find herself. I began to see books
differently, and as I read more the image I had of myself shifted.
"And the child, Francie Nolan, was of all the Rommelys and all
the Nolans. She had the violent weaknesses and passion for
beauty of the shanty Nolans. She was a mosaic of her
grandmother Rommely's mysticism, her tale-telling, her great
belief in everything and her compassion for the weak ones. She
had a lot of her grandfather Rommely's cruel will. She had some
of her Aunt Evy's talent for mimicking, some of Ruthie Nolan's
possessiveness. She had Aunt Sissy's love for life and her love
for children. She had Johnny's sentimentality without his good
looks. She had all of Katie's soft ways and only half of the
invisible steel of Katie. She was made up of all these good and
these bad things.
She was made up of more, too. She was the books she read in the
-- Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn