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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Victoria's Bookprint

Scholastic is doing this thing on their website where people (mostly celebrities) pick the 5 books that have most influenced and shaped their lives.  They are calling these Bookprints.  Tons of celebrities have participated, from famous actors and directors to authors as well, and Scholastic also includes a few Bookprints from its own employees.

After reading several of these, I decided to do one myself, not necessarily so that I can proclaim to the world the amazingness of my favorite books (I do that already), but because I wasn't actually sure that I could pick out 5 books that have shaped my life and adequately explain the reasons why.
It's incredibly easy for me to explain why books are good or why they are my favorite, but now I'm going to have to explain why they matter to me specifically, and not only why they matter, but why these 5 books matter to me more than any other books I've ever read.  That's a tall order, I think, and I'm still not positive I'm going to be able to explain it properly.

So, after about a half hour's worth of deliberation, I've finally narrowed it down to five books.  Here they are, with explanations for my choices:

Anyone who knows me at all will not be surprised at seeing this book top my list.  Hands down, Harry Potter is one of the biggest factors (that's right, I said factors, not books) shaping my life.  I first fell in love with the series in February of 2001, when I was 8 years old, and I've been obsessed, addicted, in love ever since.  Harry Potter has contributed to almost all aspects of my life: family, friends, school, life decisions...you name it, and I can trace it somehow to the effects of HP.  I'm currently an English major in college working at an independent bookshop, and I fully believe that none of that would have happened without Harry to help me along.  

My mother says that I was a reader before HP, but I think it's safe to say that Pre-Harry Potter (a time I barely remember, honestly) I didn't have the same level of adoration for the written word that I gained afterwards.  Harry Potter has shaped my personality: I wouldn't be near as weird an individual as I am without it, and I certainly wouldn't take near as much pride in being exactly the way I am.
Through the experience of being a Harry Potter fan and showing such unbound enthusiasm for the series, I learned what it was like to be thought of as a weird kid, but I was absolutely unable to be ashamed of my love for HP, so the mean kids couldn't touch me.  The rude, mean, and sometimes very nasty things that kids are wont to say to each other never had much of an effect on me, because my love for Harry helped me to love myself and the way that I am.  The fact that Harry, Ron, and Hermione didn't cater to the whims of others, didn't change themselves to fit in, but also didn't seek attention for their differences...that has stuck with me.  If people made fun of me for something that made me so incredibly happy, then I didn't want to be around those people. 

HP also shaped my relationships and my dreams: the people I love and keep in my life all accept me the way that I am, without judgment, especially since they also have their weird quirks and strange loves that I respect in return.  Growing up with Harry, learning those lessons, I naturally gravitated toward people with similar ideas, and now when I look at the people around me, the people I spend my time with, I realize how wonderful and unique and good they all are, and that's a wonderful feeling.  I know that no matter what happens, Harry will continue to shape my life.  As Jo Rowling said in 2011, "Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home."  And I will always come back.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through theLooking Glass by Lewis Carroll
I know those are technically two books, but since I read them together, bound in a single volume, I think I should be allowed to count it as one.

I first read Alice when I was in junior high, and I fell in love with the story.  I'd heard of it, of course, and I'd seen the cartoon, but when I finally read the book, everything about it drew me in.  I absolutely adore the nonsensical sense it makes, and I think it's possibly one of the cleverest things I've ever read.  I really can't stand when people complain about it, saying it doesn't make any sense at all, because that's the beauty of it!  Carroll masks his sense with the nonsense, he mixes it all up until you don't even know if the sense you can make of it was intended or not.  And the language...he makes so many jokes and rhymes and riddles; the way he uses language as if it's nothing at all to him just fascinates me.  The making-up or words, the often very precise and intentional usage (or misusage)...everything about it is wonderful to me.  This is the book that first interested me in language itself, not just stories.  The scene with Humpty Dumpty and the explanation of the Jabberwocky poem are my favorite parts.

Also, the whole idea of nonsense being a good, even necessary, thing was pretty new to me.  All throughout life and childhood, people tell you to grow up and act your age and stop all that nonsense.  Children are told that their ideas about the world are wrong and incorrect, and that they must learn the right and correct way of things.  So having a book tell me that nonsense was a good thing was incredibly eye-opening.  Even now, I like to spice up my life with a bit of nonsense, even if it's just deciding to do something for absolutely no reason at all.  This frustrates the people around me sometimes, but these mad ideas generally turn out to be fun and worthwhile, simply by their nonsensical nature.  Everyone needs a little madness in their lives, after all.

Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther
The best teacher I've ever had read this book to my gifted class when I was in 7th grade.  It's nonfiction - a memoir - and the only one of its kind on my list.  I often forget about this book and how much it meant to me; it's a quiet book, not one that really calls attention to itself with grand gestures or epic lessons, but it's one that sneaks back into my head every now and then, just to say hi and remind me that it's there.

Gunther wrote this memoir about his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor when he was 17 years old.  Johnny was incredibly intelligent and had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and love of learning that kept him going even in his last moments of life.  One of the things that impressed me most about him, for example, was that he passed the Harvard entrance exams with a tumor eating his brain.

But despite his illness, and some might say despite his intelligence (though others would say because of it), the thing that struck me the most about the story of Johnny Gunther was not what one would expect from such a memoir.  It wasn't his bravery in the face of death, not his selflessness or his struggle for survival...none of those things which are commonly lauded when a young person dies.  Instead, it was his love of life that impressed me most.  Johnny Gunther, no matter what happened to him, did not once stop living throughout the entire time he was dying.  He cherished life and the small joys it brings.  He refused to let the bad thing get to him, and it really made me consider how often I do let them get to me.  How many times a day do I let myself worry or get mad or feel sad over things I can't even control?  How many times a day do I let good things pass by without even a smile or passing thought?  Way too many times, that I know for certain.

Johnny Gunther taught me to be enthusiastic not just about the big things in life, the things that everyone gets excited for, but the little things, the ones that go unnoticed and unappreciated.  The book includes entries from Johnny's diary in the months before he died, and there is one in particular that my best friend and I have adopted as a sort of life motto, one that, I think, has changed the way we live.  It is simply two words, a toast to the most fantastic gift that any of us ever receives: "To Life!"

***I was hesitant to include these last two books on my list because I read both of them within the last two years, and I didn't really think that was enough time for me to be able to say they've shaped my life.  But nothing else fit.  I couldn't think of any other books to take their places on this list.  Then I realized that it's not the amount of time that something has affected you that matters, it's how deeply.  These two books, though they haven't had that much time to stew yet, affected me more deeply than any of the other books I considered putting on this list.  The fact that I first wanted to include them at all speaks for itself.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I first read The Night Circus about two years ago, my freshman year in college.  I think this might be the most beautiful book I've ever read.  I don't necessarily mean story-wise, although the story most definitely is beautiful.  I think the words of this book, the descriptions, the way that Erin Morgenstern makes you see, hear, feel, smell, taste the Circus...it's absolutely amazing.  You don't just read this book, you experience it.  

The Night Circus is, of course, about a circus, though please take everything you think you know about circuses and throw it all out the window, because this one is completely different.  Le Cirque des RĂªves, or The Circus of Dreams, is only open at night, and it is a lovely, mysterious place where the magic of dreams become reality.  The circus serves as the stage for a magical competition between two magicians, Celia and Marco, each trying to prove themselves more skilled than the other.  Despite this fierce duel, the two fall in love, not knowing that only one of them can finish the competition.

The Circus of Dreams is just incredible.  Morgenstern clearly has a gift with description, because it all feels so real.  She makes you feel like it's all true, that you just need to wait and hope long enough, and the Circus will mysteriously appear one evening in your town, ready to open its gates when the sun sets.  It's a magical place, an incredibly artistic and beautiful place.  And oh, how I can't stop wishing that it were real, that I could actually visit.

This book is on my list for much more than its description, though.  Something about this book, about the Circus and the people and the atmosphere...I don't even know how to explain it.  I actually can't think how to fit what I'm thinking and feeling into words.  Let's try this: Imagine a night sitting outside by yourself or with a quiet friend (one of those friends with whom you can have a great conversation in perfect silence).  Perhaps you're writing or reading something magnificent, or maybe you're just sitting quietly, contemplating life and the world.  The stars are shining, and you two are the only people around, each doing his or her own thing, but managing to still do them together.  You're not particularly tired, really, but you feel a slightly pleasant sleepiness that adds a tiny bit of unreality to everything around you.  Because you are spending periods of time lost in either words or thought, resurfacing brings with it a sort of hyper awareness of everything.  You aren't bored, you aren't particularly entertained, you aren't really doing much at all, but everything you are experiencing feels full of meaning and possibility and inspiration.  You can't help but feel a sense of hopeful contentment with the world and life.  You don't want the night to end, because you realize that once it's over, once you sleep and wake the next day, this feeling will be gone, and everything will be back to normal.

That's what The Night Circus is like.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
I feel like such a cheater by including this book on my list.  It's almost a cliche now to talk about how much it changed your life, and since I read the book less than a year ago now, it feels like a sham to talk about how much it changed mine.

But it did, and that's undeniable, so I included it anyway.
I actually saw the movie before I read the book, and I'm glad I did, because the movie really affected me and made me feel deep things, but when I read the book shortly after, it deepened those already deep things and made them into something even more beautiful.

I read this book very quickly (I think I read it in one sitting), and by the time I finished, I was crying and wanted to be alone...but not in a bad way.  I was crying because it was sad but beautiful.  I was crying for the pure honesty and truth I found woven into the story.  I wanted to be alone so I could think and digest and really let the book sink in.  I was terrified something would interrupt that process and that I would lose it, that strange happy/sad feeling I got from reading this.  I finally understood what Sally Sparrow meant in Doctor Who that sadness was "happy for deep people," because that's exactly how I felt.  I was perfectly happy, but I had this strange aching sadness that I couldn't shake and wouldn't even if I could, because it was part of what made me so happy.

I think my favorite thing about this book is the corny quotes.  You can find incredibly corny quotes from this book all over the internet from "I feel infinite." to "We accept the love we think we deserve."  And don't get me wrong, I love them just as much as everyone else, but you must admit that these sorts of things are why the word "corny" was even invented.  But that's why it's so lovely.  Even though these quotes are corny and overused and everywhere, they still manage to mean something.  They are still true, they still hold that same honesty.  It's not the kind of truth you know, it's the kind you feel to be true.  It's amazing to me, every time I see something plastered with one of these quotes, they still hold meaning for me, they still stir those deep feelings.

This book, in my opinion, at least, is an honest glorification of life; all its ups and downs and everything we experience that shapes our lives, and the appreciation of how all the things in life create us and make us who we are.  Sam is a wallflower, one who watches without being noticed, who tries very hard to "participate in life."  I think that's something we all struggle with, participating in life, though I don't think everyone notices.  We strive for meaningful experiences, memories, and relationships, but so many people don't take the time to actively enjoy the little things, the things that come together to make up the bigger experiences: a nice cup of tea, a good novel, an amusing joke, a really nice hug, a smile from a stranger...these things are just as important as the birthdays and the anniversaries and all those other major moments in life that we spend so much time looking forward to; in fact, they are arguably more important.

Sometimes you just have to let go and live a little.  Do something ridiculous or a bit irresponsible, throw your cares away for a little while, just realize and enjoy the fact that you are a living, breathing human being.  That's what I took away from this tiny little book I read less than a year ago, and it's something that has definitely had an impact on the way I live my life.  My favorite quote from the book, one that I think describes life so beautifully well, is "So this is my life.  And I want you to know that I'm both happy and sad, and I'm still trying to figure out how that could be."

This is my Bookprint.  These are the books that have had the most significant impact on my life and way of thinking.  They brought me happiness, and most of them brought me a fair bit of sadness too, but that's how life works anyway.  So there.  These are the stories that have most enriched my life.  I hope they do the same for you.


(originally posted on Victoria's writing blog Curious Nonsense

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