How the Books we Read Shape our Lives

I came across this article in the Independent called, “How the Books we Read Shape Our Lives,” by DJ Taylor.  While an interesting read, I found the premise how books shape our lives far more interesting than the article.

How have books shaped my life?

Beginning in 3rd grade, I was a prolific reader and read everything I could manage to get hold of, including the backs of cereal boxes or tooth paste tubes. In addition to this off-the-cuff reading, I had access to books in a few and set ways:  Scholastic flyers (those lovely four-page newsprint flyers that were issued out about every six weeks where I could order books for $1 or $2 dollars a piece–or sometimes even less!), my school library, the local library of a small Texas town, and books we had at home that belonged mostly to my father.  This limited the kinds of literature I was able to read–or even know existed.

The books I most remember reading consisted of the Laura Ingalls Wilder series (plus biographies and other works available through the library), Harriet the Spy, the Nancy Drew series, all the Agatha Christie books, a series of books on King Arthur, the Melindy Quartet, and Madeline L’Engle’s works.  I dipped into my father’s old college books, reading Emerson, Whitman, and Poe.  And some teacher gave me a list of the 100 most important British literature books, and I made it a goal to work down the list.  I think I made it about a third of the way before I left for college and the list was lost.

Imagine my surprise when confronted with a large academic library at my state college.  There was literature beyond the US and Britain!  How could that be?  I was vaguely aware of Russian literature–my boyfriend had read Tolstoy in 12th grade–but really?  Every nation, every continent had a robust literature?  Why hadn’t someone told me this?  It was as if my small backyard had grown enormous and with it, all sorts of possibilities opened.

And so I began to read books from Africa or Asia.  First by western authors writing about these places and then by natives whose books were translated into English.  And I took classes in the history and art of these places and discovered that the ways of living in the world that I thought were “normal” or “set” were not.  The ways of being are completely fluid, geographically oriented, and changeable.

The next step was, naturally, to travel to these places and experience the settings first-hand.  How does the geography of a book’s setting or even an author’s residence shape the characters and plot?  How does geography determine identity?

As an adult, I often consult book reviews or “to be read” lists published by newspapers, editorials, and magazines that I affiliate with.  This kind of directional reading allows me to try new things that I wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise.  But I’m also inclined to follow Amazon’s “other readers purchased” recommendations or to go down the stacks at a library or bookstore and see what else exists in this area or on this topic. Or even to just choose a section and randomly browse titles and covers.

How have books shaped my life?

They have reinforced values I was taught in my home.  They have made me question the values I was taught in my home.  They have opened my eyes to entirely new places and ways of being.  They have made me open and accepting of difference.  They have remained constant companions, especially in times of stress or loneliness.

I was at a music festival once with a group of people and I was sitting alone, reading, and holding down our chairs/blanket while the rest of the group ventured to other stages to see other performers.  One of the people came back and said to me, “I wasn’t sure how I’d find you but I scanned the crowd for the person holding a book and reading.”

I think it was one of the greatest compliments of my life.  Yep, that’s me.  The one always reading.  The one constantly allowing books to shape, mold, and change me.