You’ve Got to Read These Books About Reading Books

Photo by Sheri Hooley on Unsplash

I love books about reading books. I can’t help it. I just do.

If this is a listicle, so be it. These books and others like them are so special I am willing to take that risk. I’m out on a limb here. So before you cut it down, take a look, listen and read.

First up — a treasure called, You’ve Got to Read this Book!

It’s called that because that’s what we say when we’re so taken by a book we want everyone to read it and have the riveting experience we did.

Let’s face it, there’s nothing like being swept out of our daily existence into other realms, be they fantastic or just sublime. That’s what I’m talking about here. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.

So co-editors, Jack Canfield (of Chicken Soup for all our Souls fame) and Gay Hendricks, another prolific writer were on a hunt for books that change people’s lives. They probably speak for all of us when they wrote in the intro:

“We’ve all found that life becomes richer when we’re reading a great book. You go to sleep at night feeling that your time on Earth is more valuable, your experience here more worthwhile. You wake up seeing yourself, other people, the world differently. This is real magic — and in this book you will read story after story about the effect of this magic on people’s dreams, goals, careers and relationships.”

The concept for this compendium of stories about that one special book that changed a life sprouted organically. Canfield and Hendricks had gathered a group of twenty-five transformational leaders, business consultants and influential authors to discuss ways to work together to change the world. On a break, they started discussing books and recommending reads.

Hendricks flashed on the question: What were the books that changed their lives? — the lives of these prolific in-their-own-right thinkers, leaders, writers?

Faces lit up.

The sharing that ensued electrified that group as each one told a story of not only which title, but where they were in their life — often at low points — and how the book engaged and transformed them.

Ironically, many had not even heard of each other’s choices. If that was the case, this was a treasure to share.

So the two teamed up to interview these folks and others for this anthology. The result — 55 stories and 55 life-changing books, shared in the spirit of Charles “Tremendous” Jones’ famous saying, “You will be the same person in five years that you are today except for two things: the people you meet and the books you read.”

The contributors include: Kenny Loggins, Lisa Nichols, Louise Hay, Tim Ferris, John Gray, Dave Berry, Debbie Macomber, Stephen Covey, and 47 others.

The books include novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird, The Power of One, and the Alchemist. They include classics like Don Quixote, the Bible, and The Enchiridion by Epictetus.

And they include well and lesser known titles like When I Say No I Feel Guilty by Manuel Smith, The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau, and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

These two lists are each impressive in their own right. But it’s their intersection that makes them remarkable and not to be missed.

These compelling stories reveal moments that brought these leading lights to their existential knees, and how this one particular read, providently showing up at just the right time, was the saving grace.

Gay Hendricks ventures a description of how this works in his chapter: “Once we open to it, this resonance [of deep connection with concepts, words and their music] has the power to shake loose old beliefs and stir the deep well of our being. This…can produce dramatic results — even when reading books you’ve read before.”

More than this I won’t say. No spoilers. I’ll let you relish the delicious discoveries yourself.

Pat Conroy: reader extraordinaire

When I get discouraged about writing, I turn to the late author Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life.

Good stories artfully told of his life-long love of reading and the places that took him in spite of his own limitations, encourages me to keep going.

Conroy can be counted on for a quick pick me up, reading a favorite marked passage or two. The first chapter is about how his mother studied alongside him all the way through school up to his graduation from the Citadel military academy.

He writes of her: “Peg Conroy used reading as a test of liberation, a way out of the sourceless labyrinth that devoured poor Southern girls like herself.”

Then he tells at length of a literature professor Peg fell in love with vicariously through his descriptions of what went on in class.

It bears sharing:

“Mom fell head over heels for the lovely man the day Colonel Harrison read the Whitman poem, ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.’ With the softest of voices, he read to his class the poet’s moving elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln. Half way through his recitation, he confessed to us that he always wept whenever he read that particular poem….The grandson of a Confederate officer had been moved to tears by a poem commemorating the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. For me that day will live forever.

“I had no idea that poetry could bring a grown man to his knees until Colonel Harrison proved it. It ratified a theory of mine that great writing could sneak up on you, master of a thousand disguises: prodigal kinsman, messenger boy, class clown, commander of artillery, altar boy, lace maker, exiled king, peacemaker, or moon goddess….

“Great words, arranged with great cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers. From the beginning I’ve searched out those writers unafraid to stir up the emotions, who entrust me with their darkest passions, their most indestructible yearnings, and their most soul-killing doubts.

Doesn’t this make you want to be one of those kind of writers?

“I trust the great novelist to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate. I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.” (indentations mine)

I dare say that describes what the Canfield/Hendricks book does?

A life time love of literature

Yet this amazing passage came from a man beaten senseless as a boy by a dad who felt mocked and intimidated by Pat and Peg’s hunger and thirst for and love of novels, poems and plays. Theirs was a language he didn’t speak. He called Rhett Butler a pansy. Perhaps he was jealous.

Suffering greatly, Conroy never stopped pursuing the written word. He made sense of his life by transforming raw pain into thinly disguised fiction. It preserved his sanity and drove him crazy at the same time.

My Reading Life describes Pat’s relationship with a wide sweep of literature contemporary and classic. But he devotes whole chapters to stories with rich meaning for his life.

These include A Christmas Carol which he taught to Daufuskie Island Gullah kids and helped them present as a play, and the works of Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Wolfe, whose Look Homeward Angel may have catalyzed Conroy’s cannon and lush prosaic style.

And because it was Peg Conroy’s favorite, Gone with the Wind.

Interestingly, GWTW is the only book with a chapter devoted to it in both My Reading Life and You’ve Got to Read This Book! Writer Ellyanne Geisel ignores its historical setting — if that’s even possible — to focus on both Scarlett and author Margaret Mitchell as “belles with balls” who inspired her writing career.

Pat Conroy takes a more balanced approach. First he pays reverence to the impact the book had on his mother and his childhood. She read the epic out loud to him every year beginning at age five. And she created a fantasy world, blending herself and her life into the world of Peachtree Street and Tara.

Her son writes eloquently of the popularity of literature of lost causes. That in spite of the critics and the imperative of changing times, the book that treats the Ku Klux Klan like a men’s equestrian team became one of the best sellers of all time and won the Pulitzer Prize.

Outliving generations of critics, upholding the wrong side of history, the story taps into the deep psyche of the defeated south and does not let go.

And yet, according to Conroy, “This book demonstrates again and again that there is no passion more rewarding than reading itself, that it remains the best way to dream and to feel the sheer carnal joy of being fully and openly alive.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself even though GWTW didn’t do that for me. The Harry Potter series does do that for new generations of young and old readers alike.

But all of Conroy’s books, fiction and memoir have and continue to enchant and inspire me each time through. Pat, if you can hear me, know I feel about your books the way Peg did about her beloved epic. Thank you for leaving me many epic stories on my side of history.

If you’re looking for something to read, these two books have an exponential offering. Not just in referencing and recommending numerous titles. But by illustrating through story after story the myriad ways books move, change, and enliven our lives and the world around us. In my book, this is not to be missed.

Marilyn Flower writes fast fun reads with a touch of magical realism to strength the imagination of socially conscious folks. Clowning and improvisation strengthen her during these crazy times. She’s a regular columnist for the prison newsletter, Freedom Anywhere, and five of her short plays have been produced in San Francisco.

Writer, sacred fool, improviser, avid reader, writer, novel forthcoming, soul collage facilitator, prayer warrior and did I say writer?

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