Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I am a flawed character, and damn proud of it.

Before the holiday, @DuttonBooks tweeted, "Why give a book? Because a scented candle never changed anyone's life."

Ever since then I've been thinking about the books that have changed my life. Huck Finn was the first real chapter book I ever read. I was so enamored by Of Mice and Men that I read it twice in one sitting. Travels with Charlie. Little Women. Anne of Green Gables. The Basil and Josephine Stories. Invisible Man. Song of the Lark. The Lords of Discipline. The Bean Trees. Where The Heart Is. Bridget Jones. If you're a reader, you have your own list - the books you read under the covers with a flashlight because you couldn't stop reading at bedtime, the books that made you cry in the break room at work when you tried to sneak in a few chapters in at lunch, the books you read so many times that the binding turned to pulp, the books that had characters you still think about years later.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius changed my life in the hugest way. I used to spend so much time and energy trying to appear like I had it all together all the time. Since I'm no where close to perfect, it was exhausting, and really hard on the ego to be in a constant state of failure.

But in AHWOSG, Dave Eggers admitted to being human on a very basic level. He admitted to failing. He admitted to being selfish sometimes. And he admitted to being weird. This was back before blogging was the norm, before people shared their daily foibles publicly. Through blogging, I think we have so much more insight into what other people think and feel now than we did even just ten years ago. I think we're more open. I think we're more approachable. Blogging has changed our culture and the way we talk about ourselves in amazing ways, but back then, for me at least, this book was revolutionary. I had never seen/heard/read anyone talking about themselves that way before.

I remember reading the scene where Dave is singing Journey in the car and he says he's the greatest singer in the entire world, and I know it sounds silly, but it was like a lightbulb went on in my head - other people have moments of thinking they are way more awesome than they really are too. And as I kept reading, I had more little light bulb moments. Other people have bizarre elaborate daydreams. Other people concoct ridiculous expectations for situations in their head and are disappointed when they don't happen even though they knew deep down there's no way they ever would.

Reading that book gave me a big shove in the direction of celebrating my imagination, instead of doing everything I could to hide it. And I really needed that shove, because when you're a daydreamy kid who constantly gets scolded during long division lessons for looking out the window and imagining there's a castle in the school yard, or teased when you completely zone out in gym class, because wondering about the logistics of becoming a mermaid is way more interesting than dodging a smelly red rubber ball, you learn to stop telling people the details of your overactive imagination, and you learn that it's important to put energy into pretending to be like everyone else (or the way you think everyone else is). And by the time you get to be an adult, you can start to see your creative thoughts as a liability instead of a talent.

Without that book, I'm not sure I'd be a writer now. And I'd probably be working on an ulcer or two from the stress of trying very hard to be the person I thought I was supposed to be instead of the person I am.

Because of that book, I took risks. Because of that book, I decided to take all the energy I put into trying to be perfect into learning to accept myself. I am flawed, and that's part of what I love about myself. I make mistakes. I work hard. My socks don't always match, and sometimes I still think about what it would be like to be a mermaid. I am clumsy and geeky and goofy and kind and smart and dreamy and conscientious and flaky and weird. I care too much and don't always show it enough. I have fallen on my face both literally and figuratively, and I will again many times in the future. I learn from my mistakes, but sometimes I make the same ones again anyway. I will always try my best, and I always approach things with good intentions. I love to celebrate that crazy strange combination of things that makes us all human, and I love to sing Journey songs at the top of my lungs in my car, too (although Boston is better).

So, I very much agree with @DuttonBooks (and not just because they are my publisher). AHWOSG changed my life, but all a scented candle does is smell good. Sometimes.

What books have changed your life?


courtney said...

Great post, Allie! I think we should all embrace our flaws -- perfect people are boring. I will put AHWOSG on my to-read list right now.

The Cider House Rules by John Irving is my favorite book. Nothing that happens in the book has ever happened to me, but still I found it relatable on so many levels.

Corinne Bowen said...

Lois Lowry's The Giver changed my life and I still remember how I felt while reading it in middle school. I have to admit that I was also a big VC Andrews fan as a kid. I am always in awe when a book takes over my brain and my schedule because the only thing I want to do is get lost in that world. Most recently, authors like Stephenie Meyer, Charlaine Harris, Margaret Atwood, Suzanne Collins, and Diana Galbadon have hijacked my life.

GirlWithCurls said...

I want to be the first person on here to say Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Aha! Beat you guys to it! ;-)

Noelle said...

I wish I had a good answer for that, but I think every book I've read has changed me in some small way that is causing me to be sculpted into who I am.

There is always Fahrenheit 451, which I've read a few times when I need a reminder about how important reading is.

And Jane Eyre. She makes me want to take on the world.

The Modern Gal said...

That' sounds like a great book. I'm with Noelle -- I don't have one book that has changed my life in a major way, but I'm in love with many books -- One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Alchemist, Life of Pi. I'm finally reading Eat, Pray, Love and that's making me want to explore the world and life a little bit more. Still, the collective effects of the many, many books I've read has been inspiring, especially in my own quest as a writer.

Lara said...

Oh, so many books: so many lessons! Little Women holds a special place in my heart because it is the book I read when I was spending lazy days at my Gram's house. Anything by James Baldwin makes the list these days, and I loved the Things They Carried. Kate Chopin's The Awakening made me want to weep with recognition...oy - too many to name!