Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Ten Books That Changed My Life

Voyeur (M.A. Reilly, 2010)

I was tagged in a post on facebook by Chris Kenny a year ago to post ten books that changed my life across the next ten days.  I took a look at the books he had posted and was reminded how much I love books and people who share and also deeply love all kinds of books.  I then let the idea settle in.

Sometimes I am slow.

Ten is hard. Here's the imperfect list, a year late.

Day 1 (Christmas Day)

Dylan Thomas's A Child's Christmas in Wales

I did not know language could slip and slide and sing until I first heard Dylan Thomas read A Child's Christmas in Wales. I wanted to write like him. I wanted to make sound impressions. I wanted language to fill my mouth. I still do. I still try.

Day 2 

 Seamus Heaney's The Spirit Level.

Rob gave me a copy of the book a Christmas morning far too long ago to remember fully. I read it in a sitting and have spent the last twenty years or so rereading it.  I have gifted this book more times than I can count.

Day 3

Henry David Thoreau's Walden.

This book shaped and continues to shape me, especially as I age. I read it first in high school. I read it out of obligation and would return to it a few years later--somewhat unfettered and was surprised at how much I could hear as I had so much space opening inside.

I blogged about the book here: We Are Too Full of Knowing 

Day 4

Toni Morrison's Beloved

This was the last book I taught to more than 100 senior high school students six months after it had been published.  I remember what my students thought as we all struggled together to make sense of Morrison’s story, of America’s story.  I recall feeling deep shame as we uncovered what was not in the history books that filled classrooms no more than a few feet away.

Day 5

Rumi's The Essential Rumi


This year Rob and I would have been married 30 years. Perhaps then a book about love seems all the more appropriate.  No one in my life has ever loved me as he did. Through and with him I learned to want to become a better person.  That's the heart of marriage: to compose better selves.

Is there nothing as grand as love?  It would be a few weeks after Rob had died that I would open this book and find a page folded and a slip of paper in it on which Rob had left me a note.

Some gifts move in and out of time.
They form us.
It's not always the book that makes the book matter.

Day 6

Kate Chopin's The Awakening


I can still recall the sting of wind and the hours snow fell. It was January and school was called off due to snow. I cannot remember why I happen to have a copy of Chopin's The Awakening, but I did. I had recently turned 27 and would divorce a year later. It  would be this book that would set that course in action.  As I read the story of Edna Pontellier I grew short of breath, recognizing a possible future on those pages. Edna and I were of a similar age. I did not want to drown myself, but did feel stymied, lost, limited, too certain. Surely, life with all its fullness and uncertainty waited just around a bend and staying put would be akin to walking into that bay of water alongside Edna.

Leaving the known, the overly familiar, is always hard and takes courage.
Staying though is like death.

Day 7

James Joyce's Ulysses
Ordinary Angels (M.A. Reilly, 2009)
I really tried to read this. I tried several times and it would not be until I met Rob who had read the novel and studied it that I read it from start to end. Years later, Rob, Devon and I would spend a day where this novel opens. The same place Joyce wrote parts of the story. The stairs that wind up Martello   Tower  are worn and narrow. Instead of the book, I placed an image I made later that day as the swimming hole nearby. It was late September and we were bundled up. The locals less so as they swam.

Day 8

David Whyte's Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

I return to this text often. It is ingenious: a poetic dictionary and then some.  Whyte provides an essay for 52 words.  Here is the opening fro the word, solace.

SOLACE is the art of asking the beautiful question, of ourselves, of our world or of one another, in fiercely difficult and un-beautiful moments. Solace is what we must look for when the mind cannot bear the pain, the loss or the suffering that eventually touches every life and every endeavor; when longing does not come to fruition in a form we can recognize, when people we know and love disappear, when hope must take a different form than the one we have shaped for it.

I have read and reread this book so many times. Each time feels new.

Day 9

Kevin Young's Brown 

I don't remember how I first heard of Kevin Young's book of poetry, Brown, but I do remember reading it from cover to cover and being moved so much that staying in my skin was a challenge. His poems took me back to college (decades ago) and brought me to the present moment.

It's the way h sees and sounds that I most admire, want to emulate.

Here's the closing poem: "Hive."

Day 10

Mary Oliver's Dream Work

When Rob died I selected the poem, "Wild Geese," to be printed on the Remembrance Card.  It fit. The poem's large sense of belonging to the world conveyed what I could not say at the time. Rob was all about the generosity of living.

I read this book the year I met Rob in graduate school. It was fairly new at the time and I marveled at the way Oliver's poems were so simple and yet, profound. I return to this volume often.

What books move you? What books help you to see differently?  What books have changed your life?


  1. This is a stellar list. I’ve had many students tell me how Tge Awakening changed their lives. I’ve had “Brown” on my TBR list since it was published. I need to buy it and read it.

    This year the book that gave me new perspectives on race is “How To Be an Anti Racist” by Ibram Kendi. A book I think about often is Life of Pi. It helped me be more empathetic about the closed culture where I live.

    1. I'm reading "How To be..." right now. Learning a lot.

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