Tolle Lege: Reading that changed my Life
When I was 6 years old, I entered the first grade at Boonville Elementary School. For months, various adults had told me I would learn to read in school, and I marched into that old brick schoolhouse eager to acquire this skill. My memory of my return home from that day in school is vivid: I got out of the car, looked at my mother, blurted “They didn’t teach me to read,” and stomped into the house.
Maybe that disappointment explains my lifelong love of reading and books.
For once I had mastered my ABCs, reading became as much a part of my life as eating or sleeping. My love affair with the printed word began with Dick and Jane readers, and the romance has never died. I am one of those readers who will, bookless, read toothpaste tubes and soup cans. I am one of that tribe who regard their favorite books — and there are several hundred favorites — as they regard their friends. I am one of those who open the covers of an unfamiliar book with the sense of adventure and expectation felt by lovers and explorers.
My employment history reveals my obsession with paper and print. I have worked in two libraries and four bookshops; I have owned and operated three bookshops and a mail-order book company; I have written over 300 hundred book reviews, mostly for The Smoky Mountain News; I have composed another hundred essays or so for various magazines; I have seen a dozen poems and half-a-dozen short stories appear in literary journals; I have published two books of my own and will next year, deo volente, publish two more.
Sometimes I have wondered whether books and reading have meant too much to me, whether I have missed out on life by reading so much. None of my siblings, none of my children, and only a few of my acquaintances read to the extent I do. Would I have written more had I read less? Would those poor, creaky bookshops I owned have thrived had I spent less time reading the books and more time promoting them? Would I have developed deeper friendships, traveled more, experienced an expanded version of what other people regard as “real life?”
On other occasions, I have wondered why only certain genres appealed to me. Give me a volume of history or biography, plop me down with a good novel or some old poetry, indulge me with collections of essays, and I am a happy man. Yet while these books may have deposited in my mind and soul various treasures, they have brought little to the arena of financial gain or new skills. I wonder: would the study of books on gardening or cooking or carpentry have meant a more productive life? Would books imbibed on finance and investment have made me a wealthier person? I know a young man who, after studying Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth, put Gerber’s ideas into practice, and within two years was on his way to real wealth. When I perused the same book, trying to discover its formula for money and success, a curtain lowered behind my eyelids. Simply put, I found the book unreadable.
Having realized that I am doomed to love books and then only books that add wisdom and knowledge but no new skills or wealth to my cupboard of sparse talents, I also perceive that now and again a book or books truly have changed the direction of my life — not always, perhaps, for the better. Every book read, of course, makes some minute impression on our sensibility, yet in mulling over my past, I see that a few books have deeply influenced me. Not all of these books are great literature, and certainly not all of them would touch the hearts and minds of other people, yet their magic transformed me, on some occasions quite dramatically.
Here, for better or for worse, are some books that helped make me who and what I am:
The Childhood of Famous Americans series
Though some of these books are still in print, this series once contained scores of biographies aimed at elementary school children. These examined of the lives of famous Americans when they were children, personages such as John Adams, Stonewall Jackson, Dorthea Dix, and Stephen Decateur, with the final chapter of each book reserved for the accomplishments of their heroes as adults. The Yadkin County Library carried a number of these volumes, and I read every one I could find, inspired to believe that I, too, could experience an illustrious life, that honor and duty were virtues, that industriousness would be rewarded. The books on military commanders in particular — Washington, Lee, Jackson, Grant, Custer — influenced me to such an extent that in the sixth grade I wrote to the United States Military Academy for the academy’s catalogue and a list of the entrance requirements. Seven years later, in 1969, I entered West Point, but resigned honorably after 18 months. Though I had decided the military and I were incompatible over the long haul, those books helped place me in the academy and buttressed my views on history and heroes.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom and assorted biographies of T.E. Lawrence
Just before I left to attend a military school for seventh and eighth grades, my mother took me to see the movie Lawrence of Arabia in Winston-Salem, about 30 miles from Boonville. The movie left its mark: I read the abridged edition of Seven Pillars, Revolt in the Desert, that year, and eventually consumed Seven Pillars of Wisdom as well as Lawrence’s letters and several biographies. Lawrence had studied medieval history at Oxford, and I emulated that choice, earning my master’s in medieval history by studying with Dr. James Barefield, a fine teacher, at Wake Forest University, and then putting in a year of Ph.D. work at the University of Connecticut under Dr. Fred Cazel. Despite the irregularities of his life, Lawrence remains in my pantheon of heroes.
Hemingway, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, and a host of others
In the winter of 1975, during my year of doctoral study at the University of Connecticut, my wife of three years left me for another man. Without going into details, she smashed something inside me that remained broken for a long time. In April, I was sitting on the floor of the tiny coffee shop in the U-Conn library where some used paperbacks were scattered about the room. I picked up one by Ernest Hemingway and read a line that said — and I am paraphrasing — that you could kill off the catastrophes by writing about them. It was then I determined to become a writer. I left academia forever, and began reading Hemingway, and then Thomas Wolfe, and then Fitzgerald (for a year The Great Gatsby became my literary bible). Over the next five years, I read great literature — American, British, the Russians — like a man on fire. In the decades since, I’ve never come close to making a living from writing, but I love what I do, mucking about with words, and feel nothing but gratitude for what has seen publication.
Remarried, and with access to the library at the University of Virginia, I discovered libertarian thinking in 1980 and spent over a year reading books that challenged my political views. This part of my education began with Robert Ringer’s Looking Out For Number One, a lightweight book but one that sent me to the shelves to discover writer like Hayek, Hazlitt, Friedman, and others. One author, Roger MacBride, had run for vice president of the Libertarian Party and lived near Charlottesville, and we spoke twice by phone, during which conversations he guided me toward other writers. I finally rejected pure libertarianism as being unrealistic in its assessment of human nature, but it did alter my views on government and on the importance of freedom and free markets.
Jack Finney and John Gardner
Jack Finney’s short stories about the past and John Gardner’s Michaelsson’s Ghosts both involved old houses. When I turned 30 in 1981, my wife Kris and I began looking for a house of our own, and these books helped guide me to an enormous, deserted former inn in Waynesville. The books woke within me the romantic desire to own an old home like this one. While repairing and painting that gorgeous, dilapidated dump, which we turned into a bed-and-breakfast and bookstore, I spent my lunches and late nights reading and rereading Finney and Gardner.
Mary Pride’s The Big Book of Home Learning
In 1987 and 1988, having read a book titled Why Johnny Can’t Read, I began homeschooling my 4-year-old daughter. We used the Calvert School curriculum for kindergarten and first grade, and then branched out on our own. Mary Pride’s The Big Book of Home Learning became our first guidebook for homeschooling. Stuffed full of teaching tips, words of encouragement, and scores of resources — Pride later expanded the book to four volumes — The Big Book of Home Learning was an invaluable resource. My wife and I educated all four of our children at home, and though it was difficult for us and for our children, particularly the oldest two when they were teenagers, home education worked. If asked, our children today would tell you that homeschooling was a great blessing in their lives.
The Narnia Series
I read these aloud to our children. The Fisherman had already cast the line to me, but these books, particularly the vision of heaven in The Last Battle, set the hook. Having discovered Lewis through these children’s books, I went on to read everything I could find by him. The Great Divorce especially helped bring me into the Fisherman’s boat.
A Catechism for Adults
Father Cogan’s small book was the text used by the priest, Father Gray, who instructed and guided me into the Catholic Church. What most appealed about this catechism was its no-nonsense approach and the author’s clarity of thought. When I thumb through this book today, which I read for the first time at the age of 40, I smile at the notes I made and remember with great affection those Wednesday evenings at the rectory when Father would patiently answer my many questions.
A Soldier of the Great War
Father Ray Williams, one of the finest priests I have ever met, recommended Mark Helprin’s story of an Italian in World War I to my son Jon Pat, age 17. I’d read the book previously, but reread it after this recommendation and have since returned to it several times. A Soldier of the Great War gave me strength to face the death of my wife and to look on life as an adventure again. I have given away several copies of A Soldier of the Great War to young men and keep three or four on hand for this very purpose.
The Intellectual Life
Here is another book recommended by Father Williams. Written by a French priest, A.G. Sertillanges, O.P., this book taught me how to live alone, how to accept solitude, how to dedicate my efforts more strongly to my work, and how to merge my faith with my writing. The Intellectual Life is a desk book, meaning that it remains within reach when I am working.
Beauty Will Save The World
Gregory Wolfe’s writing not only deepened my appreciation of beauty, but reminded me that 1) politics are a part, not the whole, of life; 2) that Christian humanism is a noble pursuit; and 3) that my Catholic faith and my writing are compatible. Wolfe and other authors, particularly the English philosopher Roger Scruton, have pointed me to the beauties found in art, nature, and daily life.
The End of the Affair
Decades ago, the novels of Graham Greene were a part of my literary education. His conflicted characters, his wars between faith and disbelief, even his use of the colon and semi-colon: all made an impression. Yet of his books, only The End of the Affair had a major impact on me. Here the battle between belief in a personal God, exemplified by Sarah Miles, wife of a civil servant, and the atheism of her lover, writer Maurice Bendrix, reflects for me the spiritual tenor of our times and my own quarrels with God.
So there they are, 12 of the books that acted as guides on the journey. Drawing up this list not only brought back the excitement of reading these books, but also made me realize how fortunate I was to have such men and women as my guides.
If you are a reader, consider making this same evaluation of the books that have changed the direction of your life. It’s an entertaining exercise, and compiling such a list may cause you to examine your own affairs from a different perspective.