In the case of good books, the point is not how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. ~~ Mortimer J. Adler, philosopher, educator, and author
I was not a reader as a kid. Not even close. Music was my obsession, and I spent most of my childhood plopped in front of my record player, alternately immersed in rock ‘n roll and classical music. I read when I had to for school. When my class would visit the school library, I could never find anything I wanted to read. All the books seemed dumb and uninteresting – kid stuff.
That changed the summer I turned eleven. My mother, in a last-ditch effort to stop my incessant whining about being bored, dropped a copy of Gone With the Wind in my lap (we won’t for the moment discuss the wisdom of giving that particular book to a sixth-grader; my mom was desperate). I was skeptical, I mean, a book? But after a few pages I was hooked. What wonders a book could contain! What big stories and captivating characters! What heart-stopping and riveting situations! Now, this was a book! I re-read it every summer for years.
Then in high school, To Kill a Mockingbird ensnared me just as completely – to the point that I missed dinner (if you know me at all, this is a huge thing). By my senior year, thanks to a stellar English teacher, I’d added Shakespeare and Steinbeck to my short but growing list of favorite authors: writers who tell universal stories about flawed, tragic people; about characters fighting for their very survival, battling circumstances of their own making, or imposed on them from the outside. Even better if it’s both.
I see now that even then, I was taking my first tiny steps into the world of storytelling.
Which brings me to my second 2016 favorite read:
East of the Mountains (1999; David Guterson)
This is another book I picked up at my local library book store (to be honest, I liked the cover; if you’ve ever wondered if covers sell books, they do). David Guterson, who also gave us Snow Falling on Cedars, delivers an extended reflection on life and death as told through the actions of Ben Givens, a retired heart surgeon. When Givens is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to make one last visit to the land of his birth “east of the mountains” in Washington state. Planned as a hunting trip, Givens’ intent is to end his life by shooting himself with a family heirloom rifle. But this man, who survived the horrors of the Second World War, and as a result dedicated his life to helping others survive, is true to his name: he can’t stop giving to others. His situation is hopeless, yet he unearths nuggets of hope to give to others during the course of his personal odyssey. One wonders if, when the time comes, Givens – who is deeply attached to life – will be able to pull the trigger on himself.
Normally, I’m not a fan of long passages of description, and there is quite a bit of it here. But in this case I was pulled through the book by the breathtakingly beautiful and vivid writing. The back story is also delivered in large chunks, but instead of distracting from the narrative, it serves to fill out the reader’s perception of the protagonist. Throughout the book, events turn the main character like a prism, so that we see Givens and his situation in continually new light. Additionally, the story is filled with memorable characters who alternately deflect and aid in the course of Givens’ journey.
This beautiful story will stay with me for a good long while. While not a new book, I highly recommend it for the quality of the writing, and the profound story it tells. A book this rich and deep never ages.
Until next time…