Love at first sentence

Views and analysis

The Book That Changed My Life, subtitled “71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them”, is the kind of work you can dip into during a languid weekend and feel you have learned something. Edited by Roxanne J. Coady and Joy Johannessen, the book features mostly American writers talking about the book that led them round the bend — out of boredom, out of loneliness — into a brave, new world. In The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander write that reading books “is about rearranging us, creating surprising juxtapositions, emotional openings, startling presences, flight paths to the eternal.”

The notion of books as a form of transport — as a way of freeing us from the prison of the room, of our own skin — lies at the heart of this book. Small-town Carolina girl and National Book Award-winning author Dorothy Allison sees a parallel between herself and the young, black girl in Toni Morrison’s early novel, The Bluest Eye. “I knew absolutely that Claudia was black and that The Bluest Eye was most of all about the hatred and contempt directed at little black girls, but in my white heart what rocked and shifted was my sense of great contempt directed also at me. . . .”

As a young girl, the English writer Kate Atkinson read “books.” Later on, in school, she was forced to read “literature,” something that she did not merely read for the pleasure of the text, but something she studied in great detail, like specimens under a microscope.

And how was the experience? “It was magnificent, it was transcendental. It was the light at the end of Daisy’s clock, it was the wind howling above the moors above Howorth, it was the whale, for God’s sake.”

All of the writers here first learned to love books as children. James Atlas of Chicago was visiting Paris for the first time, and entered the iconic Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, where Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein used to hold court. The young man bought three books — all of them dealing with Chicago – so he could hear its accents, view its vistas once more, while on a trip to the Old World.

He bought the novel Dangling Man by Saul Bellow, Studs Lonigan (the first volume) by James T. Farrell, and Selected Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks wrote about the black slums of South Side Chicago, but she did so in a formal voice, her poems following the strict forms of sonnets and quatrains. If not that, she wrote very modern poems where echoes and internal rhymes piled up on each other like the wrecks of junked cars. Listen to “We Real Cool,” written for the pool players at the Golden Shovel.

“We real cool. We/ Left school. We/ Lurk late. We/ Strike straight. We/ Sing sin. We/ Thin gin. We/ Jazz June. We/ Die soon.”

Its brief, terse lines with their one-syllable words sound like bullets bursting in a borough of Chicago hardened by poverty.

If that is short, then The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is long and epical. When Graeme Base first saw the tome that his brother owned, he thought, “I will read all 1,086 pages of it? Are you kidding?”

But read he did. “I can’t remember starting the book, but I can remember finishing it. I cried. How dare it come to an end? Only 1,086 pages? I wanted it to go on and on, not because I had escaped into another world — but because I had been utterly captivated by the romance, the fantasy, the sheer epic enormity of the thing. More a prisoner than an escapee!”

And if Tolkien’s opus was vast and meandering, another favorite of the writers here is J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, for the intimacy of its voice. Before Salinger burst onto the American literary scene like a firecracker, the reigning novelists were Hemingway, with his macho works, and William Faulkner, with his novels of doom and decay in the American South. Sure, the self is also present in their novels, but the thumb mark of the “I” character, with its distinctive voice, captured the attention of an American reading public after the Second World War.

Elizabeth Berg is one of them. Her English teacher, Mrs. Yeatman, had assigned Chaucer and Beowulf, which she dutifully read. "I read about J.D. Salinger because I’d heard about The Catcher in the Rye. I’d heard that it was dirty. My friend, Donna, who’d transferred to our lame school after being kicked out of her fancy private one, said no, Catcher was good . . . I opened the book and read the first sentence and thought, Huh!? And then I devoured the book and when I finished I went right back to the first page and started over again. I kept thinking, I didn’t know you could do this! I didn’t know you could write this way! It was so open. So close to the bone. . . "

That was the same experience many of us Filipino writers had when we first read the Latin Americans. When I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, I thought to myself: You can write like this? Put together your grandmother and your yaya’s supernatural tales and the headlines blazing in the newspapers, and call this magical stew a novel?

Yes we can, and that was the bend that drove us away from the strict, formal realism that came from the American West. Time for the marvelous real of the everyday world to find flesh in our fiction, where the natural and the supernatural are one, like fins to water, and like nose to air.

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