A few weeks ago, my niece called me to ask for some book recommendations. She had an assignment to read the biography of a person who had changed the world. Not wanting to be typical, I stayed away from people who've changed us in obvious ways (I'm certain---since I had a very similar assignment I had my tenth grade students do---that lots of kids would read about Einstein, or random presidents, or even movie stars). Instead, I found her some biographies about writers, because I think they change the world, too. Sometimes they only change the world for a few people, but the impact grows as those changed also make changes. Several writers have changed my live, but three in particular were born today, November 29. These aren't just writers whose work I enjoyed reading; they are writers whose work changed me, by giving me an idea or two I had never considered and then showing me how the idea played out in a well-wrought imaginary world---also leading me to see how it might play out in my own, real world. I read each of them when I was young and impressionable, not to mention lonely, so their work became, for me, not just stories but ways of learning about the world. All three of them are dead, now, but I think there's still a sort of cosmic responsibility to let your favorite authors know you appreciate them, once in awhile. (I've occasionally sent letters to living favorite writers, although it feels like something I shouldn't confess to doing.) So that’s what I’m doing today. In a way, it’s almost not even about the authors, but about the books themselves, independent of their writers, changing the world by way of a reader or too. The book keeps the author alive, as long as someone is reading it, a sort of post-mortal communication by way of paper and ink.
When I was in fifth grade, I must have read Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, at least seven times. I put it down so often on my reading list that my teacher, Mr. Strong, asked me to read something else. I think I was drawn to it at first because of the similarities to my family: four sisters. Plus, I liked old stories, books about the past; I had the romantic view of history that made me wish I had been born in the 1800's. (Which family I would wish to join more, Laura Ingalls' or Jo March's, was a toss up.) I liked the gentle romance in it, too, Laurie's bumbling attempts to win over Jo, Meg's idyllic wooing by Mr. Brooke, Amy and Laurie finally getting together. I was also drawn to the life their family shared---Marmee, especially, seemed intriguing. Whose mom was like her, helping her children overcome their faults, taking care of the poor, always singing? I especially loved that she tried to teach Jo how to manage her quick temper with use of a book (although I had no clue what Pilgrim's Progress was). It wasn't so much that Jo had a temper and I thought she shouldn't, but the process of trying to overcome it.
Looking back as an adult, I think part of what drew me to Little Women, over and over, was that each of the sisters was a bit like me. Meg's desire to fit in with her friends, Beth's shyness and love of kittens; Amy---well, she was an Amy completely unlike me, vibrant and brave and outgoing, the Amy I wished I could be. Plus she could paint. And Jo, of course, with her writing. Maybe I have been trying to become Jo all my adult life. In fact, one of the few things I didn't like about the book (still don't) is that she gave up writing to become a wife. I still think about her declaring "I want to do something splendid before I go into my castle—something heroic, or wonderful—that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it, and mean to astonish you all, some day. I think I shall write books, and get rich and famous; that would suit me, so that is my favorite dream." Even in the fifth grade, it was my favorite dream, too.
How this novel shaped me is by giving me a family that was similar to mine---and then showing me how different it was, too. It showed me that my way of looking at the world wasn't the only way. It also puts forth some ideas about gender that I didn't really notice as I read them, but that continue to affect me. How does a woman find happiness in the world? Is it by Meg's traditional path, or the more creative one that Jo and Amy follow? Is finding the person you love and getting married the only way to live? Can't a woman continue on with her creative side even after marriage? Of course, our perspectives now are far different than those held by the March girls. But I think they are still valid questions. More than anything, Jo's passion for writing still continues to haunt me. She's still a role model.
Alcott wasn't particularly fond of her Little Women books. "I'm tired of providing moral pap for the young," she wrote in her journal. She liked writing what she called "blood and thunder" novels, full of mystery, duels, bloody deaths, addictions. She only wrote Little Women on the advice of her publisher, and maybe to have something she could publish under her own name without embarrassing her family. Yet, to my uneducated 10-year-old mind, the book wasn't about morality at all. It was, in the end, about the search for the self, a search I continue to progress in.
I've written before about how much I like C. S. Lewis's Narnia books. He was born on November 29, but a generation or two after Alcott (1898). The books were thrilling in a way I couldn't really explain, and I loved, loved, loved Aslan. The images of crumbling, empty Charn, Queen Jadis with her Deplorable Word and, later, the juice of the magic apples staining her face; the striped scars on Aravis's back; the making of Narnia and the ending of it, that field of lilies at the end of Dawntreader: all of those things stay with me. But it was that deep, unnameable thrill that influenced me the most; it was the touch of the Spirit telling me that what I read was True. Not scripture in the truest sense. But still a sort of scripture to me, an introduction to spiritual concepts like the creation of worlds, like good and evil, like the archetype of the symbolic sacrificial lamb. Like forgiveness and faith, too.
I didn't fully understand, of course, how allegorical the Narnia books are, not when I read them over and over as a child. I didn't know that C. S. Lewis was an atheist until he began discussing religion with J. R. R. Tolkein. But as I got older and began to experience my own spiritual conversion, I was always bothered by the belief systems that had come and gone. No one believes in Zeus anymore, or in Epona (the Celtic horse goddess) or the Norse Odin. Yet people did believe in them, once, and lived their lives by their beliefs. Why didn't they know the same God I was coming to know? During that time in my life, I happened to reread the Narnia books, and then to dig into C. S. Lewis a little bit. He based the novels on religious motifs---not just Christian, but all religions. (Queen Jadis, for example, is highly Islamic.) He, like me, had read fairy tales and mythology, and as he wrestled with his own faith, changing from an atheist to a Christian, he considered my same questions. Lewis came to believe that the Pagan mythologies were God's way of expressing himself through the people at that time---the way, given their lives' perspectives and conditions, they could understand the spiritual. That made sense to me. The understanding of the spiritual by way of stories is, it seems, a human instinct.
I've since read several of Lewis's books for grown ups. (Till We Have Faces is a particular favorite.) As good as they are, as thought-provoking, though, they still are paler in comparison to the magic of Narnia, which had an immense impact on my spiritual possibilities. I might not have ever believed without having read them. C.S. Lewis said that "miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see." I like that thought, like the idea of truth being everywhere, only we can’t always see it within our perspective. His books were a sort of miracle for me, retelling in a way I could grasp the story I might not have been able to see without them.
Madeleine L’Engle, whom I've written about at least one other time, is the last of the November 29 babies, born just a few years after Lewis (1918). Her Time Quartet series does a similar thing with truth, flinging bits and pieces of it across the universe and throughout time. Or, maybe with L’Engle, truth really isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s good and evil. She wrote A Wrinkle in Time after reading some of Einstein’s work, and I see it as an application of those ideas into the world. The images of the witches explaining tesseracts, or of Meg walking back down into the city to get Charles Wallace back, the furry beings without eyes: these have all stayed with me, but what has impacted me the most is the idea of possibility. Especially in regards to time, to being able to move within it. I confess it is one of my greatest wishes, to be able to go back in time. Silly, yes, but it’s a concept I continue to ponder. As I do the ideas of multiple worlds, and how small decisions make huge consequences, and what average people can do against evil in the world.
When I graduated from BYU, Madeline L’Engle spoke at the convocation. (She was also given an Honory Doctorate of Humane Letters.) I can’t even say how excited I was! She spoke about her process of becoming a writer, and she said something that continues to stay with me. While she was a mother to young children, she wrote bits and pieces when she had time, but she knew she couldn’t do both well. "I knew there would be enough time in my life for both," she said (I wrote that down on the back of my program with a pen I borrowed from a guy sitting next to me who I vaguely remembered from one of my lit classes), "so I kept the stories in my head until the children were old enough for me to have time to write." That continues with me for obvious reasons; it gives me hope that I could still achieve my writing ambitions, and plus, there’s that idea of time again. Her speech that day was the first thing that really taught me: right now matters. Doing your best with what you have right now matters. And I don’t think I would have heard it as well if it came from someone I didn’t already admire so much.
So, now I’m wondering: are there authors who’ve influenced you or changed your life in some significant way?