There are only a few books, over the course of my life, that have reduced me to tears. The first one, I remember distinctly. I was 12, and it was way past the time I should have been asleep. The rest of the house was dark (I could hear my dad snoring from the living room), and I was propped up in my bed, under a mountain of covers, leaning on a stack of pillows with my knees pulled up to my chest. Resting against my knees was Where the Red Fern Grows.
Someone had bought me Where the Red Fern Grows about four years before I actually deigned to read it. I recall thinking to myself, “Why would I care about a book about a boy and some dogs?” But then, as often happens in any young voracious reader’s life, I ran out of things to read, and the next run to the Little Professor bookstore for my next Sweet Valley High fix was at least a week away. Desperate times call for desperate measures. And so, I finally cracked open the Red Fern‘s spine, and fell in love with a book that I thought would have nothing to say to me. That night, as I read, and the seconds ticked by into hours, I grew to care deeply about Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann. I won’t tell you what happens, in case you want to read the book yourself. But I will tell you that at one point, I experienced what every reader should. That book reached down into my chest and squeezed my little-bitty heart. Then, as the book drew its fingers away, my heart expanded outward, just a little bit, taking in new blood. In that cold bedroom, in a house isolated from so much of the world and its problems, I grew.
Now, let’s turn to last night. It was way past the time I should have been asleep. The rest of the house was dark (I could hear my husband snoring from the bedroom). I was hunkered down in my chair, the cat on my lap, The Book Thief on top of the cat. A student of mine had given me The Book Thief about three years before I actually decided to read it. This time, I hadn’t read the book because reading for enjoyment sometimes seems like the last thing I want to do after reading all day for my job. But I had found a crack of time in the new year, and when I looked into the windows of my bookshelf, The Book Thief looked back at me. Maybe I picked it up because the movie had just been released. Maybe because I felt just a little bit guilty for never having read it. Any way, I finally cracked open the Book Thief‘s spine, and fell into a book that stunned me. As The Horn Book wrote in its review, this is a book “to be not just read, but inhabited.” The prose is remarkable. It has the sparkling tone of loaded brevity that also thrives in the fairy tale. Hans Hubermann wore a face with the shades pulled down. But it also has the depth of characterization that makes you, the reader, inhabit the lives of the characters. You become Liesel. You become Max. And when Death, the narrator, reaches out his fingers to play with his marionettes, you cry. And you learn. Words matter. Books matter. They have the power to transform a person sitting in his or her chair, doing nothing but moving their eyes.
So, I guess my final thought here today is that we should give others the gift of books that have changed us. Because someday, at some point, if they love books as much as you do, they will indeed pick up those books, open their doors, and be changed in their very own way. J