For me, books have always been the ultimate hideaway. Throughout my adolescence (and now, into adulthood) I’ve used books to put what I was feeling into words, to escape into magical worlds, and reading helped me grow into the woman I wanted to be. Today I enlisted the help of two of my favorite book-lovers — women I’ve spent hours with talking about books over coffees or staying up late into the night to discuss words we’ve read that meant something to us. I met my friend, Annaka Ailie, when I was 15 and she was three years older than me with long, long blonde hair, a car with Tom Petty on repeat, and so cool. My friend Lauren Smart was my first peer to graduate from grad school and get a real, true job as a writer. I’ve always admired her tenacity and determination. When I asked these two if they would write about the books that have been most inspirational in their lives, I knew they wouldn’t disappoint.
I don’t actually remember how I first discovered Billy Collins’ poetry, but when my senior year AP English teacher, Mrs. Merryman, read our class one of his poems one day, I was so jazzed because I already loved him – I already felt like he was “my own”. My teacher told me a couple of years later on Facebook that it was so thoughtful of me to buy her his latest book of poems at the end of the year. I had completely forgotten I did that. He was probably the first contemporary poet that I really connected with and embraced. One of the first stanzas I remember reading of his that still sticks with me is from his poem Tuesday, June 4th, 1991:
“But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her, barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor. She will look in at me with her thin arms extended, offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.”
This past summer, almost 10 years after that senior English class, after going through some really difficult life changes, I took a road trip by myself up the middle of the country and brought along an audiobook I’d found at the library of one of Collins’ live readings. I didn’t realize until it started playing that Bill Murray, of all people, introduced him. It’s a hilarious and bizarre introduction followed by Billy Collins reading lots of his poems interspersed with his own dryly funny anecdotes. I felt like I was in my own world, sitting in my car, transfixed by one poem after the next. Seeing many of the familiar poems in a new light because I was listening to them as an adult and hearing them read by Billy Collins himself in his own rhythm and inflection. I realized while listening to the cd, that I’ve unconsciously relegated Billy Collins to my high school days. I don’t like to feel nostalgia because it kind of conjures up this mixture of pity and longing for my old selves, but every time that I come upon a Billy Collins poem or, in this case, listen to him reading his own poetry I am struck by how brilliant his poetry is in its simplicity. You read one of his poems and you think, “I could do that” because his subject matter is so quotidian, so mundane. But, the thing that makes it beautiful is that it is layered. The average person, not versed in poetry at all, can appreciate the gorgeous and approachable imagery he uses and come away with a greater appreciation for the tiny details of their own life, while at the same time, a literary scholar can appreciate the subtle mastery that he uses to combine these images into a poem greater than the sum of its parts.
I would say Billy Collins’ poems were my segue into a voracious love for poetry. For me, he helped to remove that Fear of Poetry that so many of us have. He also taught me that, instead of esoteric and cryptic, poetry can be approachable and *gasp* . . . fun! So many of his poems have a bit of dark humor thrown in, which only makes them that much better. After Billy, I found other contemporary poets like Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Marie Howe to love. He was the perfect poet for me to discover in high school, but now even five years after college, I still haven’t outgrown him. Every time I read or hear one of his poems, it’s like coming home and forgetting how much I’d missed it.
I hated reading when I was young. I wasn’t good at it. I was much better at watching television. My mom, who was my prominent teacher for much of my life, was convinced that reading was a pivotal part of my young life. I would find sly ways to convince her that I deserved to watch television, or that certain shows were educational. To my mind, it didn’t much matter what it was. Martha Stewart would teach me how to cook; Little House on the Prairie was easier to read than watch; Arthur was all about learning how to get along with others; Magic School Bus was educational. But my mom, little to my knowledge was sneakier, and she found her greatest ally in Roald Dahl.
Dahl wrote books that embraced the magical, but totally scary world of childhood. As a kid, I struggled to go to sleep at night, and the few hours I was able to drift away were filled with ghoulish nightmares. It seemed my brain could twist any story, any image, any person into a villain. And that was something Dahl understood about being young. In his books, all adults were bullies or witches in disguise. And each character came with a scraggly illustration by the incomparable Quentin Blake.
I remember reading The Witches for the first time, in which a seven year old boy finds himself facing the horrid reality of normal looking women being merely witches in disguise. And these witches set out to turn all children into mice, led by the schemes of the Grand High Witch, who unmasks herself at one point by removing a normal looking face to reveal a skeleton like profile. The little boy eventually finds himself turned into a mouse, part of his tail chopped off, and his life shortened to just nine more years. But he decides at the end those will be happy years, because he’ll die at the same time of his beloved grandma.
If all of this sounds heartbreaking or creepy, to 10-year-old me this fictional world made more sense to me than the candy-coated, Barbie doll pink world I was force-fed by the conservative religious world I grew up in. Dahl understood for most children, adults are scary, power-mongering child haters, destined to ruin all things fun, forever forcing us to to do things like read books. But of course, my mother knew that if she tossed his books on the coffee table, not on assignment, but as a “whatever” thing, I might just skip television that night.
Now it’s your turn — let us know in the comments which books have most impacted your life!