We’re in a generally literary mood here at Manolo for the Big Girl. No, this is not going to be another list of 100 books. I think we’ve covered that concept pretty well between my two most esteemed colleagues. What I want to talk about is how a single book can change your entire life.
The title of this post is something my father used to say. For a very long time, I interpreted that statement woefully literally. I thought that in all his years my father had read only one novel.
Oh, I knew he read books all the time. He read a great deal of history, he was fond of books about ships and trains ranging from technical descriptions of the various types to true stories of places they’d been to discussions of battles they’d affected.
But my father did read fiction, too. He was fond of PG Wodehouse, a taste he passed on to me in a huge way by presenting me with my first Jeeves book when I was just twelve. In later life, my brother the medieval historian got Dad hooked on O’Brien’s Aubrey Maturin series. I was finally able to talk him into reading Robertson Davies’ Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, which I knew my Twain-loving father would appreciate.
And yet he said every now and again ‘I read a novel once.’ That would be it. It was only in the last year or so of his life that I finally asked him what he meant. What he meant, as it turned out, was that he had read To Kill a Mockingbird, and reading that book, had begun to look at the world in a new way.
I could never get him to elaborate on precisely how it had changed his world, but it clearly did so on a profound level.
I, too, have read widely in both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve spent most of my life with a book of one sort or another in my hands. I have read classics and flavor of the moment and pure trash with nearly equal gusto. I appreciate the genius of Terry Prachett and Sharyn McCrumb as much as I do that of Wodehouse, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and – yes – Jane Austen. I am one of about three people I’ve ever known who has actually read more than one novel by Fielding (I read not only Tom Jones, but Shamela as well, and laughed greatly through both). The only other person I know who has actually read Tristram Shandy is my own brother. I pick up Shakespeare for fun and hunt down obscure Anthony Trollope novels eagerly.
And yet, the novel that I think most profoundly changed my world was a slim detective story by Josephine Tey entitled The Daughter of Time.
It was a boyfriend who handed it to me and told me that he thought I’d enjoy it. The guy had a lot of faults and I have never once regretted splitting with him, but I also owe him hugely. For one thing, I learned a great deal about what not to put up with in a relationship…but I also have to thank him for this single book.
Why? Because it changed the way I read. It made me fully realize for the first time that just because it’s published in a non-fiction book doesn’t mean the author isn’t grinding some personal axes. It reminds me to think about the angle the author is writing from and judge more carefully how that affects the conclusions the author reaches.
I think I got a great deal more from the book than that old boyfriend had ever considered I would…but then, that was a lot of what was already wrong with that relationship.
So, yeah, like my father before me, I read a novel once.
I hope that all of you do, too.