Biographies in Books

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Recently, during a visit to the Harvard Book Store, I saw an awesome display. Staff members had selected books that represented their reading biographies. Each book included a short description of why the book was significant to the reader.

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The card above reads: “Read this when I was 9, growing up in Manhattan and obsessed with wolves, sled dogs and wilderness survival.”

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Many of their selections were obvious touchstone novels and others less well known. Of course, it made me wonder what books I would choose for a reading biography.

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I think there are three books that shaped my life as a reader:

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Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – One of the Harvard Book Store staff members chose this one as well. Her description says it perfectly: “Ask a woman my age about important books in her life, and there’s a good chance this will be on the list. We all wanted to be Jo.”

Jo’s ambition was to do something very splendid; what it was she had no idea as yet, but left it for time to tell her; and, meanwhile, found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn’t read, run, and ride as much as she liked. A quick temper, sharp tongue, and restless spirit were always getting her into scrapes, and her life was a series of ups and downs, which were both comic and pathetic.”

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Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White – This was the first book that made me truly aware of good writing. It was literally the first time I noticed language. White’s simple and beautiful sentences can still take my breath away.

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.”

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – I remember feeling very sophisticated the first time I read this book – although in high school I didn’t really appreciate it. Since then, I’ve read it ten times and the paragraph describing Daisy and Jordan sitting on the couch is one of my favorite passages in the English language…..

“The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.”

There was another bookstore display that caught my attention – this one at McNally Jackson, my favorite bookstore in New York.  So true, right?

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