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I Read a Novel Once | Manolo for the Big Girl

I Read a Novel Once

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.

18 Responses to “I Read a Novel Once”

  1. Plumcake August 1, 2009 at 12:11 pm #

    Oh that was so sweet, Twistie. My heart grew two sizes this day.

  2. Twistie August 1, 2009 at 12:58 pm #

    Then my work here is done, my Grinchly friend.

  3. jacicita August 1, 2009 at 1:22 pm #

    The Daughter of Time is amazing! I went to the Portrait Gallery *just* to see Richard because of that novel. And then I went up the street to 84 Charing Cross Road, another slim but influential volume.

  4. Elisabeth August 1, 2009 at 1:45 pm #

    I’ve never read The Daughter of Time, but I have read Tey’s The Franchise Affair. Hands down the most captivating mystery I’ve ever read. I can’t say it changed my life, but it did immediately shoot to the top of my Best Loved Books list. I haven’t read any of Tey’s other books, but I will check out The Daughter of Time.

  5. avirr August 1, 2009 at 4:10 pm #

    I looooove that book! Her other books are just good, and she can’t plot her way out of a paper bag, but she’s really good at writing situations and people and wry dialog. And Daughter of Time doesn’t exactly have a plot, so that’s OK. I don’t think it changed me the way it changed you, but it’s dear in my memory. “The Fens and France”. Hee!

    I also went to the National Portrait Gallery specifically to see that portrait!

  6. Twistie August 1, 2009 at 6:19 pm #

    avirr, that’s the wonderful thing. The Daughter of Time had a huge impact on me. To Kill a Mockingbird had a huge effect on my father. You may find that the book that recreates the world for you is Charlotte’s Web or War and Peace or The Pill Vs the Springhill Mining Disaster…the cool thing is finding something that makes you rethink your world.

    Oh, and to all you Richard portrait lovers out there, it wasn’t the reason I went to the National Portrait Gallery when I was in London, but I was certainly delighted to see it.

    But I need to go back someday because when I went the top floor was closed for renovations and I had to make do with a couple dozen paintings in the basement…and damn them but Anne of Cleves wasn’t there! Humph.

  7. emmme August 1, 2009 at 7:51 pm #

    I was right with you until Heart of Darkness. That book dogged this little black girl through my entire education. Finally, in a sophomore Lit class, on my fourth tour of the book, I had had enough. Armed with only Chinua Achebe’s criticism, I railed against the book and cut to shreds every aspect that depicted Africans as inscrutable, inferior or inhuman. And you know, that’s like, the whole book.


    Well spotted. I put Heart of Darkness in there for that very reason. So much of contemporary African Literature (A Bend in the River, Things Fall Apart) really are direct responses growing out of that incredibly misguided colonial tradition. -Plum

  8. emmme August 1, 2009 at 7:57 pm #

    Sorry, that comment was for the 100 books post. Awkward! I’ll be going now…

  9. Twistie August 1, 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    It’s okay, emmme. I was never a fan of Heart of Darkness, either. And goodness knows I’ve posted a great comment in the wrong place before, too.

  10. jeannemarie August 1, 2009 at 9:18 pm #

    funny – I read Daughter of Time when I was a teenager (my father had it on his shelf) and i LOVED it!! I read it again and again and wanted to be a historian at the time. I loved English history and mysteries so this was a perfect combination. It really was the book I kept rereading. I kept looking for another book to be like that, but didn’t find one. It’s been years since I read it. maybe i’ll pick it up again.

  11. pamici August 1, 2009 at 11:22 pm #

    Not a novel, but I remember loving Isak Dinesen’s “Seven Gothic Tales.” She wrote it at the end of her life and the last one is unfinished and it still drives me crazy!

  12. Cedar August 2, 2009 at 7:34 pm #

    I’ve read and reread Daughter of Time. I love it to pieces . The only downside is that I really don’t enjoy Shakespeare’s Richard III play anymore. I keep thinking “but he didn’t do it! He wasn’t like that! Richard was nice!”

  13. April D August 3, 2009 at 12:30 pm #

    I really love this post. There really are (I feel) books that can touch you and change how you look at the world once you’ve finished reading. (As well as though that can try to KILL your desire to read at all… The Scarlett Letter: I’m looking at you!)

    To Kill a Mockingbird comes to my mind often but I think the novel I reflect upon most often is Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I should go back to re-read it as I haven’t since that first time back in high school.

  14. Glinda August 4, 2009 at 10:27 pm #

    Ok, you, your brother and I are the only people who have read Tristam Shandy, which I loved, by the way.

    Oh, I’ve got Pamela/Shamela and Tom Jones under my belt too!

    But the one book that gets me every time is The Little Prince.

  15. missm August 5, 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    I love The Little Prince! It’s even better in French.

  16. La BellaDonna October 13, 2009 at 1:34 pm #

    I’ve been a Richard fan ever since “The Daughter Of Time”, many many MANY years ago.

    Every time someone mentions Shakespeare’s “Richard III”, all I can think is, “You Tudor political hack!”

  17. Twistie October 13, 2009 at 3:27 pm #

    LaBellaDonna, I think I shall go to Renaissance Faire this season just to have a reason to shout ‘You Tudor political hack!’ at a random passer-by.

  18. ffxiv gil September 9, 2010 at 3:22 am #

    Thank you for your help!