September 14, 2012
Name a book that shaped you as a person, as a reader.
This book should be something you would call "a book that mattered" or "a favorite piece of literature."
I had to pick such a book the other day after being invited, along with a dozen other people, to participate in Chicago Reads, an event put on by the Highland Park Public Library as part of its 125th anniversary celebration.
It was Sunday afternoon. Even with the Bears game going, the big library room was packed.
Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins (taller than I'd imagined) read from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Beautiful and Damned."
Steppenwolf Theatre's artistic director, Martha Lavey (how does she get her hair in that elegant disarray?), read poems by Mary Oliver.
Comedian Aaron Freeman (cracking that he might be the only black person in the room) read from Sufi poets Rumi and Hafiz.
When Michael Halberstam, co-founder of Writers' Theatre in Glencoe, proclaimed the words of "Hamlet," he practically shook the books off the shelves.
Beautiful writing, all of it. So were the readings from Mark Twain, Harper Lee, E.B. White, J.D. Salinger, Bob Dylan and Adlai Stevenson's speechwriter.
My official pick was less lovely: "The Clue in the Crumbling Wall" by Carolyn Keene.
I picked it because this was the book that, at the age of 7, turned me into a reading girl. I remember the summer day I got it: Arms sunburned from a morning at the public pool. A subterranean bookstore, cool and dim against the bright heat of a Savannah, Ga., day. An infinite row of the yellow spines of Nancy Drew mysteries stretched along a shelf.
I sat on the floor and examined them one by one, running a hand over each colorful, grainy cover. Choose one, my mother said. I picked No. 22. It was my first grown-up book, and before long, all I wanted to do was read.
But read what? Not "good" books, not until I got to college.
The British classics? Methinks thou doth bore me. Nathaniel Hawthorne? Burn me at the stake. Hemingway? Guy stuff.
After I read all of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden, my taste graduated to potboilers, best read in the bathtub. "The Moon-Spinners" by Mary Stewart. "Mistress of Mellyn" by Victoria Holt.
I enjoyed a few "good" books en route to college, but rarely ones taught in school. At 12, I smuggled "An American Tragedy," Theodore Dreiser's tale of murder and illicit sex, out of the public library and hid it under my bed to read at night by flashlight. It was a potboiler dressed up like a classic.
What a relief it was last Sunday at the library, then, to hear the scholarly Joseph Epstein say he didn't read great books growing up either. His pick was a football tale, "All-American" by John R. Tunis.
At the last minute Sunday, I did switch titles. The Nancy Drew cover flashed on the screen behind the library lectern, but I had to explain to the crowd that on re-reading "The Clue in the Crumbling Wall," I'd realized that, seen from the lofty heights of adulthood, it just wasn't very good.
So I read instead from my first "good" book, "Jane Eyre" by Charlotte Bronte.
But I wouldn't have gotten to "Jane Eyre" if not for Nancy Drew and the potboilers, and when a friend lamented recently that her 14-year-old daughter prefers cheesy books to good ones, I told her not to worry.
There are different paths to learning to love to read, and they're not always the high road.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC