How Reading Can Shape a Life


The Phantom Tollbooth 1This week I’m heading off to Spain for a do-it-yourself cycling vacation. Several friends and colleagues urged me to blog from there, and while I certainly might if the beach, the bike trails and the tapas aren’t beckoning, their urging got me thinking about why I’m doing this—as in , why am I spending more money than I should to fly to a place I’ve never been to before, where they speak a language (Catalan) I don’t know a word of, to ride from 20 to 60 miles a day in unflattering spandex, with no sag wagon behind us to help us up the hills rather than, say, remodeling my kitchen or going on a clothes-buying spree? There are probably several factors in my psyche that might explain what at times feels like a crazy thing to do, but as I started mulling the why question over, I think it has to do with reading.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe great Russian writer Tolstoy once said that literature is always one of two basic stories: either a person goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. The novel I wrote was of the latter kind, with the stranger being the young Rudyard Kipling who came to Brattleboro, Vermont, with a pregnant wife, hardly any money, and the seed of a story that would eventually become The Jungle Book. But as a reader, I seem to gravitate to the former. As a child, for instance, my favorite fairy tale was Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Snow Queen,” where brave little Gerta travels to the land of ice to rescue her dear friend from the clutches of the Snow Queen (and which inspired two great recent children’s books, Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu and Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee).

And then there were all those classic journey books I couldn’t get enough of: A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, The Phantom Tollbooth. Thinking back to those books now, I realized that each book’s main characters were on some sort of a quest, whether intentionally like A Wrinkle in Time’s Meg, who longed to find her missing father, or unintentionally like the children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe who accidentally stumbled into a portal to a magic land. And reminded of that, I found myself wondering if I, too, was on a quest—and if so, a quest for what?

Evan S. Connell StoriesThat question led me back to my bookshelf where I searched for a story by the writer Evan S. Connell I remembered reading many year ago. The story was called “The Walls of Avila” and it was about a group of men from the Midwest who’d been childhood friends. All of them had stayed in the town they’d grown up in except for one named J.D., who’d spent more than a decade wandering through Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. When J.D. comes back for a brief visit, the others regard him with a mix of bafflement and judgment. They can’t understand why he’d chosen to live the itinerate way he did, even when he tries to explain it, as the narrator of the story recounts here in the passage I’d been l looking for:

He had explained that the difference between our town and these other places he had been was that when you go walking down a boulevard in some strange land and you see a tree burgeoning, you understand that this is beautiful, and there comes with this knowledge a moment of indescribable poignance in the realization that as this tree must die, so will you die. But when, in the home you have always known, you find a tree in bud you think only that spring has come again.

I don’t think I seek out foreign places to be reminded that I’ll die; nor do I think you can’t find those moments in your own backyard, as another journey book character Dorothy discovered after spending some time in Oz. But I do think those moments of “indescribable poignance” are what I’m after on my journeys whether they’re to a foreign country, a classroom or a book: I want to be in the presence of something beautiful that speaks to fragility and the endurance of this amazing world of ours.

BicycleAs for the traveling by bicycle, I can actually pinpoint the exact moment I decided I wanted to do that. And it came from reading, too. Beyond phonics worksheet I don’t really recall anything from my elementary years that resembles real reading instruction. But in sixth grade my class used an SRA reading program, which meant that during ‘reading’ we’d each go to a box on the windowsill and pick a color-coded text on a piece of cardboard to read and answer questions about. I remember the colors—teal and ocher—more than the actual texts. But there was one I vividly remember about the American Youth Hostel organization, which described how you could travel from hostel to hostel in amazing places by bicycle. From that a life was born.

I imagine I’m not the only one whose life feels shaped by reading. And while, with all those adventures ahead, I might not get to blogging, I would love to read other readers’ stories about how reading shaped their lives. So share a story by leaving a comment. And now I have to go.

The Phantom Tollbooth 2


11 thoughts on “How Reading Can Shape a Life

  1. Lovely, lovely, lovely, Vicki! I am so excited about your trip and this piece really helps me celebrate with you!

    About poignancy away from home, it is less about the tree that I am traveling to than the noise of the distractions that I try to get away from. For me, it could very well be the very same tree. At home, its potency and beauty is lost on me because I don’t take the time to really look at it. The dishes and the laundry and the writing are calling out to me and rushing me.

    I hope you have a marvelous journey with many presence-inducing trees.

  2. As eager as I am to hear about your adventures in Spain, I sincerely hope you do not blog from there! My hope is that you’ll be in the moment every single second and take the time to drink in every nook and cranny of your journey. You inspire us all but we can wait until you get back to hear about how it went. Bon voyage, my friend. Make it count!

  3. I loved reading about how reading shaped your life, especially this trip! For me, reading has always been an escape from everyday in which I’ve been able to experience other things that I never would have been able to—some good, and some bad. I took a literature class on Non-Western Civilization, discovered the author Khaled Hosseini, and recently finished his latest book. Good luck on your trip–looking forward to reading all about it!

    • Afraid I’m only getting back to comments now, but while I do love to get on a plane to some place far away, I do believe that we can have the same kind of life-enhancing experiences through reading a book. That’s why I think I’m addicted to both!

  4. I hope your trip is rolling along peacefully. All the stories you’ve filed in your mind will come back along with your new story. This year we used Genre Study to read fairy tales and searched for the suggested motifs. The sixth graders were excellent motif identifiers! I bet you’ll find them on your journey: Good vs. evil, special characters, magic, magic objects, alternate worlds, the hero’s quest. There you go!

    • You’re so right! When you set yourself up to notice, you notice all sorts of things. And I’ll you see in this week’s post, many of them with magical, alternative worlds.

  5. The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes shaped my life as a reader. A book ordered from the Arrow book club in grade 3 ( 1960) had a profound impact on me. I shared it with my daughters years later, my future students and hopefully will one day share it with grandchildren. To this day this simple story remains my favorite book of all time. There are many things in my life that have been forgotten but every detail of that book is forever ingrained in my memory. I wish you much happiness on your bicycle journey through Spain. You are inspiring me to embark on new adventures even in my sixties. I look forward to your blog very month.

    • I loved The Hundred Dresses, too, along with The Little Princess, for many of the same reasons. I still have my 1960’s copy of that one, though I think the illustrations are branded into my memory like the details of The Hundred Dresses are for you. And for the record, I turn sixty this year so I’m only a few years behind you.

  6. I just found your posts, pre- and post-Spain. Lovely to read them together. The quest for poignance seems helped with some perspective, either distance in space or time. I sometimes see that importance when I look back. (Thank goodness for photography it gives me the means to notice what I missed the first time.) Looking back on my reading life, one book that shaped me was out of a book club order. It was a collection of biographies of great women athletes. Something about their stories, their determination in those pre-title nine times was fascinating. I’ve been in love with athletics and athletes ever since. I also got a beautiful yellow jacketed copy of The Little Princess as a birthday gift. Loved that book, in part because it was so pretty. I have to say, this process of shaping me through reading is a continuing story. It’s interesting to see what captures me and why.

    • I was a Little Princess lover as well and can still conjure up those illustrations. And you made me remember that I, too, liked biographies, though mine were more historical—Dolly Madison & Florence Nightingale come to mind. As for poignance, it is much harder to feel and experience it when you’re caught in the daily grind, but I’m hoping I can hang on to this feeling at least through the rest of the summer!

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