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Fiction changed us

  • 1984


  • Hamlet


  • To Kill a Mockingbird

    To Kill a Mockingbird

  • The Brigadier and the Golf Widow

    The Brigadier and the Golf Widow

  • 1984
  • Hamlet
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • The Brigadier and the Golf Widow

Part of the latest thinking in public education, spurred by the new Common Core guidelines, is a greater emphasis on reading non-fiction. The news made us wistful for all the wonderful fiction we read as students, novels and short stories that stayed with us long into adulthood. We asked readers to tell us about the works of fiction that they read in school that had an important effect on their lives.

Frankly, Scarlett . . .

When I was 12, my family lived in an antebellum farmhouse in Maryland outside Washington, D.C. The farm had a two-story slave quarters in the back yard. It was next to the vegetable garden and the fence filled with Concord grape vines.

That summer in the early 1960s I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.

As a teen, I was entranced by the tale of Scarlett O’Hara – her grit and her exploits. Knowing that the farm where my family lived had once been worked by slaves made the story very real for me.

Although I whipped through the book in three days, its impact has been life-long. Always a voracious reader, Gone With the Wind inspired me to learn more about history. In fact, in college U.S. history was one of my two majors.

I trace my continued interest in reading history, visiting historic sites and participating in local historical societies to my early encounter with Gone With the Wind.



Anti-authoritarian inspiration

It’s hard to choose between George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, two books which informed and inspired the anti-authoritarian spirit of my high school years. Both novels center on an “everyman” hero trapped in a world whose rules crush the human spirit. Both gave their titles to the English language.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, written in 1948, peered into the future and foresaw a society in which the state crushes all dissent and Big Brother is always watching. Propaganda determines which thoughts are thinkable. Perpetual war keeps the populace focused on external enemies. Lies are truth. Resistance is futile.

Catch 22, published in 1961, looked backward to the European theater of World War II. Where Orwell’s world was grim, Heller’s was absurd, filled with unforgettable characters. Who can forget Major Major, with whom a soldier could only meet when he wasn’t there? Or Milo Minderbinder, the entrepreneurial mess hall officer who makes a fortune selling chocolate-covered cotton? Amidst the horrors of battle, the hero Yossarian knows he’s sane because the war has driven him crazy. Resistance is imperative.

Together, these novels equipped me with a readiness to question authority and spot the absurd. How else can one face a time when the government of the world’s leading democracy is tracking your phone calls and the person who reveals the truth is a wanted criminal? How else can we understand politicians who use the term “right to work” to mean “work without rights?” Resistance is imperative. Laughter is essential.



Fiction made me a writer

I didn’t learn to write well by being taught how to write; I learned it from reading. I read a lot as a kid, but one writer stands out in my memory. Ray Bradbury could make a shopping list brilliant. Two of his books are in a dead heat as most influential on me: Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Dandelion Wine. Rich, beautiful, elegantly simple prose excited my young mind to question things I took for granted. What is happiness? What does it mean to be alive? What sadness and secrets lie in the hearts of the parents and other adults you think you know? What does it mean to grow up, to live, to age, to die? Joy and fun are not the same. There are profound differences between scary monsters and the deep fears that haunt the dark corners of our everyday lives.

As an adult, I read mostly non-fiction. Science, real people, the world as it was and is, fascinate me. But as a young adult, non-fiction was dull. A chore. Schoolwork. It was fiction that captured my imagination. At that stage of my life it was fantastic stories that set fire to my desire to master this art of words. To learn to write like Ray Bradbury! To conjure the wonders of a book like Dandelion Wine! That’s what made me put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, with an enthusiasm no compulsory reading could inspire.



Lessons from Hamlet, eventually

In high school we read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and I railed against the English teacher’s insistence that there were deep lessons to be drawn from Hamlet’s inconsistent (or just plain odd) behavior. My paper on the book said two things: (i) Shakespeare rushed to meet a deadline with a half-baked play; and (ii) if you want to talk about psychology, put down the novels and just do it. Only later in life did I come to appreciate literature as a means of taking the cold “equations” of philosophy, psychology, political science and even the harder sciences like biology and physics, and putting them “into motion,” giving them a real life context, and thereby educating by vivid example – and at a pace (unlike movies) that allows for real reflection. Although I still suspect that James Joyce is laughing at everyone that takes him seriously.



Inspired by Atticus, then Scout

The single most important novel I read while I was a student was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I grew up in a liberal northern family in the 1960s-70s but was deeply touched by the plight of a black man living in the Deep South in the 1930s, wrongly accused of raping a white woman. The story focuses not only on Tom’s trial and the efforts of his devoted lawyer, Atticus Finch, but also on Atticus’s two children, Scout and Jem. Embedded in the novel are the themes of race relations, gender roles, parent-child relations, fears and assumptions about the unknown, and so much more.

For the longest time, Atticus was my hero. After reading To Kill a Mockingbird as a young teen, I decided I would become a lawyer. If Atticus could defend the downtrodden of his time, I would do the same for those in my time. Through high school and college I maintained this ideal, graduating from Cornell Law School in 1985. I didn’t want to practice criminal law, and unfortunately, public interest jobs, where I could represent the “downtrodden,” didn’t exist during the Reagan ’80s. So I took a job working in a small legal office, representing working and middle-class people with their everyday legal struggles and concerns. I hated it. I eventually came to realize that for me, the real hero of the book was Scout, Atticus’ 6-year old daughter. I loved her spunk, her feminism and her intense kindness.



These books (and more) opened my eyes to the world

I am not sure it was “a” book, but it was an Irish Catholic English teacher assigning a bookshelf of fiction that opened my eyes to the world.

I never got along with Neil O’Doherty, my eighth-grade English teacher. Mr. O’Doherty knew my mother, a lapsed Catholic, who had taught at my junior high for years (Mom had left a year before I entered the ranks of seventh grade). It was clear as soon as I started class that I was being thrown into the epicenter of “the Catholic wars” that had defined Neil’s stormy relationship with my mom.

But despite my personal dislike for the man, I have never forgotten him. Why? Because Mr. O’Doherty handed me a magic carpet that took me to the shtetls of western Ukraine (Tevye’s Daughters by Sholom Aleichem), to medieval Norway (Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset), to islands in the Pacific (Hawaii by James Michener) to the early years of the Arab Israeli conflict (Exodus by Leon Uris), to the segregated South (To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee).

There has never been “one” book, but there have been one or two adults who assigned dozens of works of fiction that fertilized the curious in me, opened my eyes to the depth of injustice and turned a map of the world into a Jew named Tzeitel, a Catholic named Kristin, a Chinese immigrant named Char Nyuk Tsin and a model of justice named Atticus Finch.



Reality meets the surreal

I read the short story “The Swimmer” in high school – not for any class assignment – but because there was a collection of John Cheever’s stories on the shelf in our den, and a 15-year-old can watch only so many reruns of F Troop on a dormant Sunday in the early ’80s before he starts to wonder if his life is already devoid of meaning.

Neddy Merrill is a husband and father of three who decides to “swim across the county,” from pool to pool in his suburban neighborhood, for no other reason than he “had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure.” Or it was an attempt to shake away a massive hangover – at least that’s what I thought in high school.

This story helped me realize it was okay not to think in a straight line – that maybe things aren’t what they seem – and that skinny-dipping Communists might just live next door. And that a line like, “It was worse than eating your peas off a knife,” could capture so many ideas in such a simple sentence.

I also loved Neddy because he loved storms like I still do – “ . . .why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?” Most important, I still love this story because it laces reality with the surreal that makes me uncomfortable. And it was way better than another episode of F Troop.



Words that were true and transcendent

I was always a reader, so it’s hard to pinpoint a particular work that impacted me. But I do recall “discovering” poetry and short stories when we read Edgar Allen Poe in junior high. I wrote a story about drowning and felt very powerful when my classmates and teacher were thoroughly creeped out and wanted to know if I’d ever nearly drowned myself. I hadn’t, and from that day I realized fiction could make people sense and understand things beyond experience. Fiction and poetry was invented but at the same time, true.

In high school I was lucky to have a very dynamic teacher introduce Shakespeare. She made the tangle of challenging language come alive and told us these plays were the movies of their time, with special effects, fighting, passion. She said the sonnets were all about hormones and emotions. Shakespeare’s words were different but we could understand him because he wrote about being human. Around the same time I learned about archetypes and universal themes in mythology and fairy tales. Fiction and poetry could transcend time and place.

Most important, my family went to the library every week, where I was free to check out whatever I wanted, regardless of merit, “reading level,” or subject. What I craved – and learned to judge for myself – was what I found in fiction and poetry: words that were true and transcendent.

I am a librarian and writer – and a better human being – because of those discoveries.



Traveling for real (and via books)

I can’t remember any specific book I read (at least 80 years ago), but I loved anything to do with travel, past history and present, and when I had chances to see the world, I took them – from the ruins in ancient Greece to the newest province in Canada which is called Nunavut. And in between: life in the townships of South Africa not long after Mandela was freed, Cuba under Fidel Castro, China in 1995 before its economic boom when cars were scarce and bikes were “in.”

Travel has given me insights to the lives people lead and how the countries developed – and before each trip I have read books about the area, some novels, some personal, some just history. I think this has developed tolerance and compassion and amazement at how people can and do adjust to conditions imposed on them, at the same time trying to get ahead with their lives.

Perhaps a good atlas should be required reading, always within one’s reach.



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