Have you ever read a book that absorbed you so completely it changed your life? That has happened to me several times in my 70-something years.
It started with “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte, a book most often described as “a plain tale with few pretensions.” It ushered me into my adolescence and through the “buffetings of circumstance” that every teen and young adult experience. I wrote a book report on it in high school and got an A-plus. I’d never thought of myself as a writer until I received that tremendously affirming grade.
May I ask? Do students these days even get plus (+) signs when they turn in assignments or share observations or ask good questions in a classroom setting? We each and all need more affirmation in life. May I suggest you give someone a plus sign today?
In graduate school, I read and re-read Beatrice Wright’s “Physical Disability: A Psychological Approach.” After I was able to stop concluding I had every disease condition discussed in her book — and if I did not someone in my family did — I elected to pursue a career in rehabilitation therapies and aging. That book opened a life-work door for me. Books can do that. Over dinner tonight, perhaps you could talk about reading materials that redirected or even upended your life. If you’re eating alone, perhaps you’re doing so with a book or newspaper propped in front of you. Hope you have good light and the reading material is maybe just a little upending.
This year for Christmas I gave my husband, and several of my reading friends, the newly published “1,000 Books to Read Before You Die” by James Mustich. It could be described as a bucket list for aging readers. It’s quite a big tome and heavy to hold because the author provides descriptive information on each recommended book. The 1847 Bronte novel is in there, of course. Its well-crafted summary is nested between “Navigator of the Flood” by Marie Brelich, a book that analyzes “the drunkenness of Noah,” and the weird and wild “Wuthering Heights” by Charlotte Bronte’s sister, Emily.
For Christmas, my husband gifted me with Michelle Obama’s recently published “Becoming.” I’m only on the second chapter, but I already give it a plus sign. No matter what your political inclinations, she writes well — with plain-spoken authenticity. I just completed reading and was completely mesmerized by “Beneath a Scarlet Sky,” a book of “historical fiction” by Mark Sullivan. It’s my book club’s selection this month. The discussion will assuredly be lively. By the way, I heartily encourage you to consider launching a book club, if you’re not already engaged. They create an environment for topic-based social connectedness — and there are snacks!
I fear I have become over-directive about my experiences with books and reading in general. The best guidance is what Virginia Woolf offered in “How Should One Read a Book.” She suggested, “the only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” One book at a time.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.