Back when the book blogosphere was young, we would dream up lists of questions to ask each other, which would then do the rounds in true chain letter style. Being, as most bibliophiles are, an introspective, word-y type of person, I loved these. But there was one question that always troubled me: “What is a book that has changed your life?”
Now. Reading has certainly changed my life. Certain authors have done much to shape my beliefs. But a specific title, altering the course of my existence? I never had an answer, and I secretly worried that this lack meant something, something about whether books were truly powerful for me.
I have grown older, and more secure, since those days, and I no longer trouble myself over whether I’m a ‘real’ reader. I also now take a less literal view of that question. In spirit at least, I believe it’s asking “What is a book that has touched your soul?” And I have many such heart books, as I think of them.
Allow me to share one with you. Jane Austen’s Emma became a heart book for me in the fall of 2008, when I was twenty-two. My life, that I had so meticulously planned since I was seventeen, was beginning to derail, and I had no idea why. I burst into tears at least five times a day, and despite all of my outward signs of success and a promising future, inside I felt hopeless. So I turned to Austen, and Emma’s story suddenly became my own. Here was a young woman, just about my age, who also thought she had everything figured out, only to have her world turned upside down. The harder she tried to fix things, the more she seemed to mess things up. Emma’s fall from grace and her eventual recovery of it soothed the large part of me that was terrified I would destroy my entire future if I didn’t figure everything out right now. Austen’s gentle, loving portrayal of Emma allowed me to see myself in a kinder light. That was a profound gift, and ever since Emma has had a place in my heart.
All of this came to mind because I’m in the middle of a heart book right now: Sara Maitland’s From the Forest (also published as Gossip From the Forest). It’s a book I connected with in an instant, from a visceral place, and I now find myself reading just a chapter at a time to prolong the experience. It is teaching me truths about myself, truths I already half-knew but couldn’t quite articulate. It’s also breaking my heart, as I currently live in a forest-less land, but it’s worth it.
In the spirit of nostalgia, I’d like to ask all of you to name a heart book, either in comments here or on your own blog (do leave a link in the comments so I can come read your post). Pass it along, chain letter style, and let’s embrace those books that resonate with our truest, deepest selves. I know they can be difficult to talk about (I actually didn’t mention the one book that has most literally changed my life; perhaps in another few years I’ll be ready), because of course claiming a book as soul-touching bares at least a bit of your most vulnerable self to the world. Yet I believe that the much of magic of book blogging lies in that combination of the literary with the personal, and that we have built a community that is supportive enough for that to take place. I look forward to hearing your stories.