There are some books you read and forget; there are others that stay with you a lifetime. And there are those that still conjure up memories of the exact moment and circumstance in which you first read them.
My initial idea for this post was to pay homage to Harper Lee, who passed away on February 19th at the age of 89. In particular, I wanted to share with readers my memories of reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. But sitting here typing out the words that will soon go from just my screen to yours, I realized that there are several books that conjure up fond or bittersweet recollections of who, how, and where I was when I first read them. Thinking it over, I’ve chosen four books that stand out in my memory.
1.) To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee: I was fifteen, visiting family for a week in the Elliotsville area, where we have a camp on a beautiful pond tucked into the foothills of Borestone Mountain. I bought the book from the (now out of business) Mr. Paperback in Dover. My high school sweetheart, an even more avid reader than I was, had come with us. When I bought the book, he decided he needed to read it, too. And so for the next couple days, we read it in tandem. We read at the same pace, and so we were able to sit on the couch on the screened-in porch and take in the words together. He had to leave a few days before me, and so he took the book home with him. When he gave it back to me, it smelled like him and his house – a unique combination of his laundry soap and the overwhelming scent of wood-smoke. To this day, if I bury my nose deep enough into the spine, I swear I can still smell it… The aroma reminds me of sunshine, green forests, cool water, and simple summer days spent at camp with my family. It’s a good smell. And they are good memories.
2.) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling: My parents gave me the first three books of the HP series for Christmas when I was ten or eleven, and so, like so many of my peers, I was able to grow up with Harry, the two of us being the same age. As soon as I had unwrapped the books, all I wanted to do was dive into them. Which is exactly what I did do, shutting myself in my room the rest of the day, ignoring any of my mother’s pleas to get me to join the rest of my family in the living room and kitchen. I didn’t care that it was Christmas and I should have been visiting with my aunts and uncles and grandparents. All I wanted was to immerse myself in this new magical world. By the time I emerged from my room, hours later, I was completely under the spell of Harry Potter. Over a decade later, I still am.
3.) Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust: This was required reading for one of my college English courses. One of my best friends – I like to call her my English-major-soulmate – had to suffer through it as well. Neither of us completely understood it, and we both dreaded it. We would text each other, asking things like, “What does this mean? Am I supposed to care? Does all this talk of madeleines make you hungry for cookies?” We also happened to be reading it at a time when my personal and romantic life was beginning to crumble; now, whenever I think back on this book, I also recall the frustrations I was dealing with at the time. Funny how a book can carry so much weight, even years later. At least we weren’t required to read the entirety of Proust’s massive work. I don’t think I could have carried that as well as our other required reading book, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism – though we only referred to it grimly as “The Brick.”
4.) Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell: Because I’ve read this one a few times, all at very different junctures of my life, this book carries many memories for me, most of them good. Reading the first chapter in the Ashland town library, late afternoon streaming in through the windows. Receiving an ‘A’ from my favorite high school English teacher on the book report I wrote about it. Lazy mornings spent lying in bed and chuckling over the spirited exchanges between Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara. Searching old bookshops for the perfect copy of the book (and finding it – not just once, but twice; one hardcover, one paperback). The convincing weight of the book in my hands, and the smooth, creamy pages under my fingertips as I furtively read it on my lunch breaks, lingering as long as possible over the words before returning to work.
Which books evoke such memories for you? Comment below to share where you were in your life (physically or metaphysically) when you were reading a particular book. I’m looking forward to reading your stories!
For now, let’s end on a note to honor the passing of one of the greatest American authors of our time. Farewell, Harper Lee. We’ll meet again on the pages of that old, beloved paperback. I’ll be there, and I know you will be, too.
“The book to read is not the one that thinks for you but the one which makes you think.” – Harper Lee
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And, for a sample of my fiction writing, follow the link to read my original short story, “Lost and Found,” recently published by the Hawaii Pacific Review: https://hawaiipacificreview.org/2015/12/10/lost-and-found/