9 Books That Taught Me Something Other Than Spelling

Following is a non-exhaustive list (ie., written while watching my children in exhaustion):

1. Nancy Drew Mysteries—Reading these books are the first memories I have of needing to read–as in, I need to know whether Nancy figures out what the heck is happening on Larkspur Lane. Long after my mom called “lights out,” I sat hunched under the covers reading by the red light of my digital clock radio. It was not easy, and is probably why I now wear glasses.

In short, these books made me a reader.

2. Anne of Green Gables – L.M. Montgomery has a way of describing nature that makes you want to be a tree. I think appreciating nature was inborn for me, but she put it in words. Before reading her, I wrote stories that were all action: “The Easter Bunny hopped down the street” and so forth. She taught me about details, about creating a picture with words, well before any of my creative writing teachers said, “Show, don’t tell.” I tried to imitate her writing, and my 6th-grade musings about crabapple blossoms won a contest.

3. North and South – I saw the TV mini-series first, the one with a young Patrick Swayze (Orry) and James Read (George—my fave). I was SOOO serious about this series that I placed my tape recorder next to the television speaker and recorded it. Oh, yes, I did.

The storyline is soap opera-y, but it sparked my 4th grade mind like nothing else. A couple of years later, I read the three 1,000+ page books in the series by John Jakes and a lifelong interest in slavery and the Civil War ensued, and therefore a greater knowledge about race and racism, and the Civil Rights Movement.

And really, it’s not a stretch to say that knowledge led to a greater appreciation for humanity and made me a better, more aware individual. All that from a book decidedly not part of the canon of English literature. This is why I think it’s okay, even necessary, for teachers to have all types of reading material available to students, even comic books. If students are reading, that is good.

4. Grapes of Wrath—I like all of Steinbeck’s books, but this was my first. It taught me that characters could be specific, not generic. The dialogue, the realities he presented, made me interested in people, in the small stories that make up the bigger world. The book also taught me that we can’t get through life alone—we need to seek help and offer help.

5. To Kill a Mockingbird—a well-loved book for good reason. This book taught me about moral courage and human kindness. My favorite scene is the one in which Scout follows her father to the jail and faces, in all her innocence, the lynch mob. Children simplify things, and in speaking to Mr. Cunningham as the individual he is, she shames the mob into dispersing.

Also, who doesn’t want to name their son or dog or fish Atticus?

6. In Cold Blood—Truman Capote had the idea that you could write a “novel” about a true event. It didn’t have to be dry. It didn’t have to read like a newspaper article. True stories can have flair. They can have dialogue, as well as descriptions on par with L.M. Montgomery. Capote researched the murder of a Kansas family so thoroughly, you wouldn’t believe it actually happened.

In the same vein, The Killer Angels (7) brings the battle of Gettysburg to life like no textbook ever could. This is what students should be reading in history class.

These two books showed me that “true” is compelling. This might as well be called the Thank you, Truman Capote and Michael Shaara (and Steinbeck) Blog.

8. Shakespeare—Can’t pick just one influence. Shakespeare’s mastery of timeless themes and observations on the human condition reminds me, as a writer and a human being, that the simplest answer is often the best, and the hardest. 1 + 1 = 2 and it always will, but we humans have a tendency to want to throw some extra digits in there, usually fractions.

Of the ten or so plays I’ve read thus far, I’d pick Othello as my favorite—jealousy, racism, deceipt, it’s all there. But my favorite scene comes from Henry V, before the Battle of Agincourt:

…We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

For he today that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition.

And gentlemen in England now abed

Shall think themselves accurst they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap while any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.

That is the end of a rousing speech that is just badass. (For those of you who thought Steven Spielberg came up with the title for his HBO series–or Stephen Ambrose, for that matter, whose book is the basis for the series–the answer is always: Shakespeare.)

9. Crossing to Safety—Deep in the book, Wallace Stegner describes a college scene in which the men are, appropriately, “men.” The women are “girls.”

Sexism can be a hidden, tricky little thing.

In writing so, Stegner taught me to be aware of the influences around me, especially the subtle ones.

So – what book(s) influenced you?

“If writing is the talking part, then reading is the listening.” –RY Swint

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15 thoughts on “9 Books That Taught Me Something Other Than Spelling

  1. All wonderful choices that I love too! Harper Lee, who wrote To Kill A Mockingbird, also worked with Truman Capote on In Cold Blood. I would add Jane Austen as one of my favorite authors and all her books taught me things about communication, miscommunication, everyday life, and love and happiness.

  2. Well, you already know that I loved reading this blog. 🙂
    I think we’ve all learned stuff from reading that we didn’t realize we’d learned until someone posts something like this. The liste could go on and on, couldn’t it?
    Although I never read the book or saw the movie, “In Cold Blood,” I’ve long admired Truman Capote’s work. From what I understand, he and Harper Lee were actually childhood friends. I believe I heard/read somewhere that the neighbor kid, Dill, in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was loosely based on Capote.
    And wow! I have so many favorite scenes from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the book and the movie. The book was somehow more heartbreaking, but they did a great job with the movie. Who doesn’t love Gregory Peck? And yes. I’d love to name someone in my life Atticus, probably the beagle I plan to get once I finally get a larger place. 🙂

    • Yes – could go on and on about TKM and I’m already having, “Should have put that one in!” moments. I find it so interesting that two authors like Harper Lee and Truman Capote grew up together and worked together as adults.
      And, I wasn’t pandering — it’s a great quote! 🙂

  3. Loved To Kill a Mockingbird and In Cold Blood. My all time favorite book from my childhood is The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I can still picture my dad reading it to me and trying to teach me the importance of compassion. As an adult 2 of my favorite books are Start With Why by Simon Sinek, Good to Great by Jim Collins and Linchpin by Seth Godin.

  4. Love #1 and #2, even though I didn’t read Anne of Green Gables until I was in high school. Nancy Drew taught me how to be analytical, though I’m not that great at it in the solve the mystery kind of way. It also made me want to travel because of some of the books that were set in foreign countries.And I like the titles; some of the words really appealed to me, such as lilac, larkspur, Kachina. As for Anne, I read these series (the first few, anyway) over & over. Also watch the movies over & over. It made me love nature and imagination and putting yourself out there. I even to grad school to Newfoundland because it was close enough to PEI, and I thought it would be just like in the Anne books. LOL.

    • I love it! I’m a word person, too. I took my husband’s last name just because it was more interesting than my maiden name (Null). Last year, I went to PEI and loved it!!! Did you get to go at all?

  5. I love this list so much — and your first five plus Shakespeare would be on my list of influencers too. I would add anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne. My first American Lit class I fell in love with his writing and it opened my eyes about early american writing, and I continue to be amazed by how Hawthorne was such a modern thinker and the incredible ways he observed and wrote about human nature.

    • I hate to say the only thing I’ve read by him is the short story “Young Goodman Brown” in high school. I remember liking it…the way you describe him as a modern thinker has me interested to pick him back up.

  6. So interesting! I’m glad you brought this back from the archives. I loved the Nancy Drew mysteries too, and To Kill a Mockingbird, and Grapes of Wrath, and Shakespeare of course–King Lear is my favorite. Some other books that deeply influenced me were A Wrinkle in Time–it ignited an interest in science and in science fiction, and the fact that children’s lit can be as deep and provocative as anything written for adults. Where the Wild Things Are did the same thing, for children’s picture books. The “Angelique” series, now out of print, showed me how thrilling a historical romance can be, that heroes do not always have to be handsome, and that strong beautiful woman can be powerful and vulnerable at the same time. And Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Beloved showed me the power of lyrical language and the “truth” of magical realism. Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefluer did something similar. And Woolf’s “To a Lighthouse” showed me how interesting stream-of-consciousness can be, how moving the ordinary stuff of life.

    • I completely agree on your point about children’s lit — and the funny thing is, even though books I had to read in school like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe fascinated me, I still never wanted to pick them up. Same with all sci-fi–I usually love it, be it a book or movie, but I have a hard time choosing it in the first place. I don’t know why….

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