Best of cheapblackpens | The Five Books that Changed Me as a Reader

[Original posts: #5, #4, #3, #2, #1]

I was feeling introspective on my way in to work this morning, and I tuned out my latest audiobook adventure to reflect on five books that are insanely important to me. These are the books that shaped me as a reader, and not necessarily my favorite books of all time (though there are some overlaps).

#5: Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season

Welcome to the twenty-first century! Yes, this was the century in which I “discovered” that books come in more options now than just paperback or hardback. I learned that I hated e-readers, but I love, love, love audiobooks. Thanks to a positive experience with DS, I realized that audiobooks are perfect for my long drive into work. Nonfiction books are like lectures, giving me an intellectual warm-up and cool down. Novels are fun, offering a nice little stress reliever. DS lead me down a new path as a reader, exposing me to a whole new literary world.

#4: 1984 

1984 was labeled as “one of the greatest books of the twentieth century” by my senior year English teacher, and I had always wanted to read the book. I loved Animal Farm, and I figured this would be a quick, breezy read with some weighty themes to keep me interested.

The only problem was that I wasn’t interested. The writing seemed clunky and jarring, and I just didn’t like the book. I ended up abandoning it after about fifty pages, swearing I would resume it at some point again. I still haven’t (perhaps in 2012 I’ll focus part of my reading efforts on “Classic Literature I Never Read”).

Ultimately, 1984 forced me to confront what many of my classmates realized with other classics: sometimes, a great book just isn’t your great book. It’s okay to pick something up and put it back down if you don’t like it. It’s okay to say “Not right now, but maybe another time in my life.”

#3: The Handmaid’s Tale 

In college, I mistakenly identified this book as the source of my latest in a series of obsessions (I am your typical “I love this!” only to abandon it entirely within a few months or years). Yes, I decided to major in Gender Studies and History in college, and then misguidedly decided to apply for a Gender Studies PhD program after I graduated. I attributed this to The Handmaid’s Tale, which my English class read during our junior year in high school. The female-driven tale really spoke to me, and I thought that this would be the book I would fondly recall as the “book that drove me to my PhD.”

Clearly, that did not happen. I abandoned my quest, realizing that I had been right in my assessments all along: no, I did not want to deal with the political side of academia; I did not want to hammer out a tenure track; I had no intention of doing research for publication. No, if anything, The Handmaid’s Tale taught me that approaching something from a distinct perspective – in this case, feminism – was pretty darn wicked.

But, that’s still not entirely the point I’m trying to make. Applying a lens to reading and analyzing it using that lens is a cool approach. This book makes the list because it was my first serious foray into analytical reading and marginalia. I saw writing and reading in a new way, and I found myself entranced in the process of, well, becoming entranced. With The Handmaid’s Tale, I was completely absorbed in this world, and eager to put all the pieces together. I ended up finishing the book well ahead of the reading schedule, then going back and rereading it for a closer, deeper analysis. I hoped that I would continue to find books with meanings that extended beyond just plot lines; I hoped I would one day be able to write them to inspire in others that kind of reading.

#2: The Silence of the Lambs

I know what you’re thinking – pretty creepy, right? Let me explain. I read The Silence of the Lambs during an unusual period in my life. Ever since my early days, I was reading anything. I was reading above my grade level, but for a while I plateaued. I was reading some young adult books, some adult fiction, some nonfiction – everything was jumbled up. After a family vacation where I ended up reading three of the five books I brought just on the ride down, I decided that it was time for some new challenges. The young adult series and novels just weren’t cutting it anymore. With The Silence of the Lambs, I moved on to bigger tomes and heavier themes.

Is this necessarily the best strategy for a reader? In retrospect, I don’t think so. At the time, I moved on to a new phase in my personal and reading life. It was great to take on those themes and language and feel like I was truly entering adulthood. At the same time, I kind of wrote off all YA literature. Now I’m trying to backtrack and read (what I’ve heard) are great series and give those books another chance. In college, I read the entire Harry Potter series (which I had dismissed with “BORING. If you can’t write a good first chapter, you suck!”), and now I’m looking at Twilight…which may or may not ruin this whole experiment.

#1: Dinotopia

This was the book that started it all: my love of reading. In my current profession, I’ve learned the importance of finding someone’s “communication currency.” Determine what someone values and use that as a bridge, starting a positive, successful collaboration. My parents were masters of this – connect something to dinosaurs, and I was there in a heartbeat.

My parents’ infinite wisdom was not limited to their very successful dinosaur toys plus positive reinforcement equals potty trained toddler equation (I had my entire dinosaur toy collection back in a week; I’m pretty sure I was staying hydrated so I would get my toys back ahead of schedule). I was having a difficult time with my Hooked on Phonics lessons and reading was difficult; I absolutely loathed the lessons for a while. In a stroke of genius, my parents decided that I needed something to motivate me. What did my parents get? Dinotopia, the latest and greatest dinosaur book I wanted so, so badly.

Of course, there was a caveat. I had to learn to read before I got the book. It was situated on the bakers’ rack, taunting me. If memory serves me correctly, it was in my hands by the next weekend. I was zooming through the lessons, and I couldn’t get enough. New doors were opened, new worlds waiting to be discovered. Reading wasn’t difficult or boring; it was amazing and exciting!

For kids who still want to be explorers, don’t be discouraged when you look at a map of the world or someone tells you “All the places have already been discovered.” That’s just one reality. Open a book and discover new places and lands. You can still be an explorer; there’s no end to what you can discover. This is, without a doubt, one of the best lessons my parents ever taught me.

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