Our book club resumed meetings at the Magee Library last week after a year’s absence for COVID-19, and I was thrilled to be back. I read all the time anyway, but being with other readers who share their thoughts about the same book is a treat.
Our first book was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, a novel based on the Packhorse Librarian program started by the WPA during the Great Depression to bring books and literacy to isolated people in the Kentucky mountains. For some, these books were their only exposure to the outside world.
I could relate. Though I’ve certainly never lived their hard, isolated lives, I credit library books, mainly novels, for most of my education.
My children’s books were a huge influence on what I believed then and in some cases still believe today.
Peter Cottontail by Beatrix Potter, with its lovely, quaint illustrations of English gardens, gave me a vision of the world of animals that I never got over. In my mind, rabbits still wear jackets and have mothers who love them, and anybody who shoots a rabbit for sport is a villain.
My Little Golden Books reinforced that belief by anthropomorphizing animals like Dumbo the Elephant--giving them human characteristics--that increased my sympathy for them and gave me a kinship with them that I still feel.
Our first grade reader, the Dick and Jane books, ingrained in my mind that a family is a mother who stays at home and does housework in pearls and high heels, a father who works in an office and carries a briefcase, a brother (Dick), a sister (Jane), and a baby (Baby). A family should have one dog (Spot, funny, funny Spot), and one cat (Puff, who did nothing interesting).
That’s not exactly how families turn out for most of us, but I’m not sure that wasn’t a good goal--except for the housework in heels.
In middle school, the Trixie Belden mysteries taught me that it was okay for girls to skin their knees, get sunburned and be smart. Girlhood became easier for me at that point.
In high school I set out to read all the American classic novels. I haven’t completed that task yet--I bogged down along the way deciding to read all the British classics and then all the world classics. But I’m still working on it.
I have always loved novels, which are often truer than nonfiction, and which have richly repaid me by teaching me most of what I’ve learned in life. By the time a history teacher told me a fact about the past, I already had a picture of the era from a novel I had read.
From American novels like My Antonia by Willa Cather I learned about immigration and the newcomers’ hard life on the prairie. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage gave me a realistic look at the Civil War, as USA by John Dos Passos, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck revealed to me the flaws of American society.
When I read Black Boy by Richard Wright, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and later Beloved by Toni Morrison, I grasped the injustice of life in America for blacks.
Novels written by honest authors forecasting our future from their present also gave me a surprisingly accurate picture of what the future would look like.
British writers Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World and George Orwell in 1984 and Animal Farm foreshadowed intrusive government and the intolerance of dissenting opinion that we’re seeing now.
But the novel that most influenced me was Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, written in 1957. I read it as a sophomore in 1960 but I didn’t have the political savvy to get it then. I read it again as a senior in 1963 and got it that time, and its theme has never left me.
It’s a futuristic look at the America that Rand saw coming, a time of political correctness that had led to unrealistic ideals for society. Every act was to be for the “good of society,” not for progress or productivity but to make the group feel good. Thus, individual success is discouraged, and productive, successful people become the villains because they make others feel bad by doing something the group can’t do. Success by an individual supposedly takes away success from the group in Rand’s future society. The government protects no individual rights, only group rights. The result is a world breaking down because no one is motivated to do anything alone or to live a life of personal fulfillment and achievement.
Unfortunately, I see Rand’s vision working in the world today. It’s scary.
Fortunately, the book I’ve spent the most time with, the book that eventually influenced me the most, is the Bible. It is the truest book ever written, and it is the book that gives me hope despite my knowledge of what I see going on in the world and what the inevitable result is going to be.