The books that get inside your head

I’m often asked if I have a favorite book. When I was younger, my whole-hearted answer was Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I remember, so fondly, adoring the boy’s love of his dogs, his determination to save his pennies to buy them, his dedication to training them, their devotion to him, and his heartbreak when (spoiler!) tragedy strikes at the end. The story captured my young heart and stayed with me for many years, though, as it turned out, many of the details had faded. 

A few years ago, I found my old copy and convinced my son to let me read it out loud to him, one chapter at a time before bed (a feat considering Diary of a Wimpy Kid and anything Marvel is more his speed). And while the essence of the story was still there – the boy’s love, the dogs’ devotion – there was also quite a lot that had slipped from my memory. Violence – a young boy dying from an ax fight and the killing of animals depicted in repeated, explicit detail. Sexism – women referred to in dismissive terms, i.e. “girls don’t think like boys do.” And a whole lot of talk about God – God’s influence over the outcome of our lives, God’s creatures, God’s plan, etc. They were all things I couldn’t imagine resonating with me as a younger person, and definitely not with my son now. 

To be fair, I did get a few eye rolls from him at the “old fashioned” parts and had to pause to explain a few things that didn’t sit so well (“Well yeah, some parents did whip their kids with a belt when they misbehaved, but that’s definitely not ok to do now…). But he hung in there and fell just as much in love with those dogs as I did 30 years ago, as I’m sure readers did 60 years ago when the story was written. And he pulled the book from my hands and wouldn’t let me read any further for a while when he figured out what was about to happen towards the end, tears in his eyes, not ready to face the truth. We eventually finished it, both of us crying, appreciating the heart of the story that has outlasted six decades of cultural evolution.

…he pulled the book from my hands and wouldn’t let me read any further…

These days I have a different answer when people ask about my favorite book. It is one I came across a few years ago – The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. It is a beautifully written book about a Bengali family and how they assimilate into their new life in America. Much of the story focuses on their son and his struggle to connect not only with his own name – despite its significance for his parents – but with his family and their culture, his peers and their lifestyles and eventually with his own needs, desires and place in the world. It questions the ideas of identity, loyalty and love in artfully open and honest language. 

The first time I read the book, I actually listened to it. I believe it was a book on CD that I checked out of the library (oh, simpler times!). And one line came through the car speakers as I was driving….”They are not willing to accept, to adjust, to settle for something less than their ideal of happiness.” The words felt like they were piercing through me. 

I pulled over and backed up the CD. I played it over. “They are not willing to accept, to adjust, to settle for something less than their ideal of happiness.” I backed it up again. And again. And again until tears were rolling down my face. That was it. The characters in the story were ending a relationship. I was too. For me it was an almost 10 year marriage and so many people were questioning me. Why? they wanted to know. But how do you sum up all the reasons in a polite conversation? All the messiness? All the details? I struggled to find the words to make everyone else understand and appreciate what was so obvious to me. And here it was in one sentence.  

…not willing to accept….to adjust…to settle for something less than MY ideal of happiness… 

I felt validated somehow, like someone else got it. Even if it was just the character in a story, or maybe the writer who wrote it. Even if I never actually chose to use those exact words out loud in my own conversations, I had still found them, and because of them, I fell in love with the characters and their story and their struggle even more. 

So whether it’s an 11-year-old loving a dog so much their heart might explode, or a 30-something finding a kindred spirit in a dark car during a lonely moment, I suppose that’s what makes a book eligible for favorite status – the ones that make us feel, make us cry, give us a thrill or make us scared – the ones that get inside your head and stay there for a long time.