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Five Books that Altered the Course of My Life

Michael Grady | Oct 8, 2013, 2:53 p.m.

“Write a short essay,” my English teacher told us, “five books that changed my life.” This was, of course, some time ago. I was in high school—so only about 20 books existed at the time—and I had read just three of them. (I think I listed “Curious George Finds a Tick” twice.) The intent, then, was to shame us about our lack of literacy so we would dutifully march into the pages of “Beowulf.”

But, unlike my sideburns and acid-washed jeans, that question is worth revisiting later on. Books can have a profound influence on your life. (I know a couple of folks who, but for “Catcher in the Rye,” might have done serious harm to themselves.) Books demand an investment of focus and imagination that’s almost unprecedented in our current multitasking world, and they offer so much more in return. At mid-life, my English teacher’s question makes a great personal inventory. You can see how books influenced your own perspectives on literature, people or life itself.

So: my English teacher’s question, posed 34 years late (I’m going to need one hell of excuse to get full credit) with a challenge to you, to complete it on your own.

“The World According to Garp":” I was driven to literature by hormones. In 1979, I attended a family reunion that featured two extremely cute distant cousins whose Southern accents would send any 17-year-old male hurtling through puberty. They took one look at me and concluded, kindly, that I was the “brainy one.” I didn’t want to disappoint them. So on an excursion to a local mall, I purchased the thickest book I could find (without pictures!) and carried it around for the rest of the reunion. On the drive home, I stuck my nose between its pages to avoid conversing with my parents—and John Irving’s tragicomic kaleidoscope of tail gunners, falling children, feminists, wrestlers and one-eared Newfoundland dogs seized my nose and held it hostage across three states. The idea that someone could create characters who would live and grow and die and make me care about them from the back of a Buick Wildcat was absolute wizardry to me. Was every book this good? A found copy of Jacqueline Susann’s “Once is Not Enough” soon told me, loudly, “no!” But “Garp” put me in awe of writers—and had no equal until it was flattened by:

“The Grapes of Wrath:” “There are absolutely no grapes in this story,” I remember telling my Dad. “If there were, then maybe it wouldn’t have turned out so bad.” (That is, painfully, how I learned what metaphors were.) I was 18 and a black hole of self-absorption when I first read this, so naturally the trials of an indigent Dust Bowl family could not compare with the trials of a Michigan teenager forced to read 300 pages for a quiz on Monday. My dad, cleverly, made a game out of it: “Just get ‘em to California and you can stop,” he promised me. “They’re already in Oklahoma, so you just have to read ‘em across a few more states.” As my eyeballs pushed the Joads and their “crappy truck” across John Steinbeck’s bleak, Depression-era landscape, my anger began to shift from the family’s wordy troubles to the people who were cruel to them (“Why don’t do they feed them? Can’t they see they’re starving?”) to the horrid circumstances that befell them (“That Noah was never right!”) to their brutal disillusionment at their destination. “Kind of gives you a better perspective on your own life, eh?” My dad asked. And it did. It took weeks of focused narcissism to get my teenager card back. To this day, I taste dust in my mouth whenever I think of this novel, have a soft spot in my heart for the photographs of Dorothea Lange, and refuse to trust handbills offering jobs in California.

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