Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ten Books: To Kill a Mockingbird & Illusions

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. I imagine this would be on a lot of people’s lists. It is an American classic, and Atticus Finch (can you guess after whom my Atty Boy was named?) an American icon. Told from the point of view of Scout, who during the action of the novel is a mere six years old, To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of lessons that a six year old can comprehend, but many adults fail to achieve. While the main story line of Tom Robinson’s trial brings to life the ugly, brutal face of institutionalized American racism, its twin story line of the childrens’ obsessive fear & taunting of Boo Radley works to expand & universalize the themes of maturity, listening to one’s own voice, treating people as individuals rather than monoliths, and plain old kindness and generosity. On reflection, I realize that Atticus has served all these years as a yardstick for my own integrity. What would Atticus do? Gregory Peck, who played the lead role in the movie version (which is nearly as good as the book), fingered Atticus Finch as his favorite out of the more than 25 lead roles in his stellar career.

3. Illusions, by Richard Bach. The books of Richard Bach are fun, well-written specimens every single one. I had first read Jonathan Livingston Seagull when I was very young, and had quite randomly picked it up out of a pile of my older sisters’ abandoned books. In a way, it was written perfectly for a child my age, though I wouldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of this seemingly simple story for years to come. Perhaps I still don’t; perhaps we can never rest easy that we truly and fully understand anything. To this day, the sight of a seagull brings me a feeling of ease, and I refer to them all as Jonathans, as in “Look, there’s a Jonathan.”

But as much as I hold that first book dear to my heart, it is the next one – Illusions – that entertained, stunned, riveted, and freaked me out all at once. I was an angry, screwed up nineteen-year-old in a severely dysfunctional relationship with an angry screwed up older man. The one healthy thing I took away from that relationship was a taste for literary science fiction (Heinlein, Asimov) & a lot more books read under my belt. At a time when I was absorbing all kinds of new information & furiously trying to figure out who I wanted to be & how to be it, this book (okay, and Stranger in a Strange Land really sticks out, too, but it got booted from the list) held a lot of answers. Granted, they were answers whose code I wouldn’t figure out for years, but I didn’t have to have it all figured out in order for it change the direction of my life.

Because of this book, I decided I wanted to go to New York University, and it was the only college to which I applied. This was very much in contrast to my mother’s nature of constantly hedging her bets, and she tried until it was too late to get me to have backup choices. Part of the application package had to be an essay in which I delineated which book had had the greatest impact on me and why (perhaps it was broader than this, but this is what I remember now). I wrote an essay about Illusions that even inspired my mother. I wish I still had that essay; I would have simply used it as this entry instead of all this blather. Before NYU ever had a chance to change my life (which it did, tremendously), I somehow mustered the confidence to apply, to express something genuine and be rewarded for it.
Next: Three Tragedies, by Federico García Lorca

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