Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Books That Stay With Us

I've been thinking lately about the books I read many years ago that I still remember.  I have been a big reader for many years, though the last few years I have certainly read more than ever before.  I wonder about those memorable books of my formative years.  Were they so powerful because of the age I was when I picked them up?  Or do they have a timeless nature that can affect people at any age?  

One of the first books I remember loving was The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.  I still have the copy that my fifth grade teacher was giving away, that I positively snatched up because it spoke to me.  It spoke to my 10-year-old heart of love and sacrifice and prejudice.  Things I really knew nothing about.  Still, the characters seemed to speak to me.  To draw me into their lives and their world and their time.  Oh, how I still love that book. 

Another book, definitely more obscure, but equally beloved was one my mom brought home for me.  The Enchantress of Crumbledown by Donald R. Marshall is the story of three runaway children who find shelter in a crumbling old house.  In that house, lives a woman who is unfettered by the restraints of society.  She seems to truly live, and she teaches the children about art and poetry and imagination, all while not really seeming to teach them at all.  I just remember being drawn into the magical world the enchantress created for the children.  This was the first book to truly unleash my imagination.  I started writing silly romantic stories after that.

Next, I remember discovering Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte at thirteen in my school library and falling in love with the story of Jane and Mr. Rochester.  During those years, I was a little romantic with a flair for the dramatic.  It seemed Jane's tragic story was just perfect for me.  The mysterious and romantic air of the tale spoke directly to my heart.  Jane has stuck with me ever since.

The next year, I found Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and for the first time was introduced to a story that didn't have a mostly happy ending.  I cried when I finished and worried about what Scarlett would do and would she ever get Rhett back.  I've never forgotten that story, those characters, and I still wonder about those two.

Shortly after, I devoured The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and discovered that adventure, mixed with some tragedy and romance, could be just as fabulous as pure love story.  For many years, I have clung to this book as one of my all-time favorites.  Even after reading the unabridged version and decided that the abridged is just fine, thank you, I still consider the story one of my favorites.

In looking over these books that I adored, note that most of them are classics, one is not.  What is it, then, that makes a story stay with us?  Will we always love them?  What about books that reference pop culture, will they lose their appeal over years or decades?  What are some of your "enduring classic" books?

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  1. I think it's a combination of factors, Melissa. Partly it's the book itself, and partly it's the way we bond with it on that first reading. For me, having re-read a book many times over the years also contributes. The overall effect is cumulative - I love it partly in homage to all of the different Jen's who loved the same book at different times.

    Some examples for me are A Little Princess, The Forgotten Door (Alexander Key), the Maida Books by Inez Haynes Irwin, and Gone-Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright.

  2. Witch of Blackbird Pond was one of my favorite books to read with my 5th graders. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sticks with me because my mom and I took turns reading aloud to one another when I was in the fourth grade. Probably where I first figured out how much I love reading aloud. Awesome, thought provoking post. Thanks!

  3. My enduring classics include To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, The Gone-Away Lake books, Daddy Long-Legs, and The Secret Garden. These are books that i can picture myself in and that I could sit down and reread right now without being bored.

  4. For years, I read Jane Eyre on my birthday, then apparently I got over the drama. Sometimes it's just the right book at the right time. I can't read Anne of Green Gables anymore; it makes me sad. And Daddy Long-Legs seemed creepy when I read it last. Hmmm. Have to think about this.

  5. Jen, I love your thoughts! It really is a combination of lots of different things and it's unique for each book.

    Bill, there's something about books that you read/listened to in elementary school that bring up so many great memories! So glad you get to read them with your classes now.

    Paige, those are some great ones! I haven't heard of Daddy Long-Legs before, but now I'm intrigued.

    Ms. Yingling, yeah some of the books from my childhood that I thought were so great turn out to be only so-so now. Nancy Drew and Baby Sitters Club come to mind :)

  6. I agree with Jen: it's a combination of timing, of good writing, and of mindset.

    Mine? Witch of Blackbird Pond, Wrinkle in Time series (but only the first three), and Secret Garden.

    They were the only books I actually *owned*, being a library goer, even back then.

  7. The first book I remember being head-over-heels in love with was The Outsiders. I was 13 when I first read it: we read it in school, and then I went and got my own copy, because I just loved it so much. I'm sure there were books before that, and there have been many books since then, but I think about that book much in the same way that people think about their first boyfriend or girlfriend!

  8. I read The Lord of the Rings in early high school. It's good to reread every few years becuase it's one of those rare books that changes and grows with you. It was a great adventure story then but now it's speaks about responsibility, choices, courage, etc.

  9. I want to put in a plug for the notion that a lot of it is circumstantial. Among the Witch of Blackbird Ponds and A Swiftly Tilting Planets, I have to count some Choose Your Own Adventures and 1980s problem novels in the books I return to in my mind.

    Are they brilliant works of classic literature? Oh hell no. But something about them grabbed me at the moment I read them and held on.

  10. Melissa, these were all books I owned, but probably read from the library first :)

    Caroline, great analogy! Definitely a certain way of thinking about those first books (just like first boyfriends).

    Carl, LOTR has a very special place in my heart as well. I think I need to reread it very soon.

    Sam, absolutely some of the non-classic stuff impacts us! I really did love all the terribly written series for young readers. Something about being drawn into them and also the familiar characters makes them so enjoyable.

  11. Jane Eyre is one of my touchstone books also... the kind of book I experienced with a deep soul love from the first time I read it (even though I was probably too young to really get it) and still feel that I could pick up and reread at any moment with joy only slightly fettered by nostalgia. Others less literary have included: The Last Unicorn, the Lioness Quartet, and Lord of the Rings.

  12. dreadfulpenny, for sure I didn't get it when I first read it. I love being able to pick them up again and remember those first times.


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