Sunday, May 20, 2012

Guest Blogger #3 - Marsha Palitz-Elliott

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 
world differently. 

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 
library. ....” 
-- Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn  


  1. Wonderful post. I think books can call out to you from the shelves, willing you to take them home, or at least off the shelf for a browse. Every time I visit NYC (not often enough) I set aside an hour or two for the Strand :)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to respond to my blog post. First time I have done this. Nice to know that someone has read my words. Do you have other favorite bookstores in addition to The Strand?