Every so often, you find a kindred spirit, someone who understands, truly gets something near and dear to your heart. The name Anna Quindlen was vaguely familiar to me. As an occasional Newsweek reader, I might have come across her regular column, or perhaps I heard about the Pulitzer that she won for her column at the New York Times. But when I came across her book, enticingly titled How Reading Changed my Life, I found a new friend.
One of my favorite ways to spend times with friends is to swap book recommendations, especially in front of our bookshelves. We’ll mention a book, and immediately start rummaging around, looking for it, to loan out. My English professors did this whenever I’d visit their office, and what I used to see as cumbersome extra reading assignments, I now recognize as a thoughtful, friendly sharing of a common interest. To share a book with a friend is to share a piece of yourself. To those of us who love books, it’s one of the best gifts we have to offer.
Quindlen shares books. Her pages are loaded with titles and authors that have transformed her thinking and her feeling. She tells her life story intermixed with the revelation that books played a key role in making her the person that she is today. She’s like that friend, running to the bookshelf, pulling out a heavily underlined favorite and passing it along.
It doesn’t hurt that the books that have impacted her life also have spoken to mine. Jane Austen is at the top of the list. Then there’s the Bronte’s as well. Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, Little Women, Catcher in the Rye, and Lady Chatterly’s Lover all get honorable mentions. But there were others that I’ve never read, ones that I had not planned on reading. All I needed was a friend to give me a gentle push in their direction.
This little book is also a philosophical reflection the the reading life. Quindlen claims that we, the avid readers, are at heart, travelers: “Perhaps it is true that at base we reader are dissatisfied people, yearning to be elsewhere, to live vicariously through words in a way we cannot live directly through life. Perhaps we are the world’s greatest nomads, if only in our minds” (70). And she speaks of reading as means not only to escape reality but to find reality: “All of reading is really only finding ways to name ourselves, and perhaps, to name the others around us so that they will no longer seem like strangers” (21).
This book love can be an isolating business. Our culture increasingly devalues the book, as it raises up other media. But every so often, you find a friend, someone who understands, someone who champions your cause and encourages you to pick up more books, to read, and enjoy.