Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Books That Made A Difference

[My fabulous teacher friend, Katie Finegan, is designing an assignment that models the section in Oprah magazine where famous people comment on the books that made a difference to them in their lives. The books are not necessarily favorite books, but the ones that left some of deepest impacts or stirred the greatest changes. Fin asked me to do a sample that she could show to her classes...and since my first few days in Provo have zapped me of the ability to write a full new post about what's going on in my life, here's a look at the books that have helped make me me.]

Books That Made a Difference to Jaclyn Hutchins

The English teacher turned grad student picks five books that helped shape her world.

When I tell people I grew up with that I became an English teacher, they are not surprised. I have loved books for as long as I can remember. In high school, I got in trouble for three things – talking too much, passing notes (the hazards of a pre-texting era), and reading during class. I thought college was a perfect fit because I got to read novels for homework – after class you could find me laying around campus or encamped along the Provo River with a stack of books on one side of me and a Diet Coke on the other. Then I found a job where I got to blend my love of teenagers with my love of literature. The grammar and the writing structures I had to teach were just details to our discussions of how we could apply books to life and the society in which we live. Both as a teacher and student of books, I have always been fascinated by how literature reflects life and then in turn, life reflects literature. Even more curious to me is how my life has come to reflect that books I have read and vice versa. I am who I am because, in great part, because of what I have read.

Narrowing down the books that have impacted my life to five has been a near impossible task. I carry a book with me everywhere I go. Even when I travel to Europe with only a carry-on, I still have minimum three books with me. The great thing about reading books is that once I have read them, I carry the characters with me wherever I go too. Those stories and lessons become a part of me. And the five I have chosen for my “bookshelf” are the few that over the years seem to be the stories I come back to over and over again.

My Bookshelf

A Face in the Shadows
By Susan Evans McCloud

I got this book for Christmas in 1996. I was thirteen-years-old and in true adolescent fashion, I was in love with the idea of love and tragedy and anything else dramatic and “grown-up.” I was so excited to read this book and so annoyed by the combination of Christmas cookies and the hoards of little kids at my grandma’s house that I locked myself (literally) in an unfinished basement room so I could read. Within a couple of pages, I was enthralled with the main character Augustine, a French girl in the 1950s, who was off to the United States to attend college after living through the horrors of World War II. I was sure my college experience would mirror Augustine’s – minus the whole “falling in love with your young, hot German professor with a tragic past” thing. Needless to say that my time spent at BYU was nothing like Augustine’s college experience, but I still thought of her at the start of each semester. Someday, I want to walk where “she walked” in France. The thirteen-year-old version of myself just keeps on dreaming.

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien

The books I read my junior year of high school are some of the books that have most profoundly affected my views on literature and my views on American society. That year, I drove in a stunning yellow roadster with Daisy Fay and Jay Gatsby for the first time. I sailed a raft with Huck and Jim. I feared a world of people who do not question authority with Clarisse and Montag. And I saw human beings at their worst alongside a young soldier named Tim. O’Brien’s story about his experiences in Vietnam are still some of the most haunting I have read. I did not appreciate what being cruel to thousands could do to a country and to those who fought for a cause that was not necessarily just until I read the stories of Alpha Company. This book changed my romanticized view on war and bravery. It changed my view on human nature, and it forced me to look at individuals and the hidden sorrows they carry. O’Brien said in chapter four, "If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie." That lie and the spell of wishing for days when men were brave were broken, and another part of my idealistic view of the world melted away after reading this book.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
By Jonathan Safran Foer

9/11 has become one of those watershed events that changed everything that happened after. It was a quiet Tuesday morning during my first full week of college – my first time living on my own. And in an instant, my illusions of what adult life was like were shattered. How does a writer even begin to describe the tragic events of that day and the impact those events had on the world? Even more difficult, how does that writer describe it from a nine-year-old’s perspective? Foer has gift. In this book, he is funny without being insensitive, serious and poignant without being melodramatic. This book captured for me a moment in time – both a personal moment and a moment for the United States that continues to affect our current society. This book also offered a glimpse into little things that we do – the doors we unlock, the hands we hold, etc. – and how those little things mean so much to the individual fabrics of our lives.

The Book Thief
By Marcus Zusak

I finished this book on a beach in Maui. Covered in sunscreen, Pacific Ocean salt, and white sand, I cried as the fateful final days played out for the families I had grown to love. This book had me from the first page - historical fiction is my favorite genre and WWII is my favorite era within that genre. Throw in a brilliant narrative voice (Death tells the book thief's tale) and a writing style that is so engaging, I ignored the beach and the Olympics to keep reading. Zusak's characters are people you would likely stumble across in your day-to-day life, and so you cry when the bombs fall, you smile when the sounds of Papa's accordion seem to fill your ears, and you laugh out loud at their terms of endearment. The book opens with, “HERE IS A SMALL FACT. You are going to die.” Not exactly a warm and fuzzy beginning, but this book showed you the end of the story along the way. I knew who was going to die and who was going to live. I knew there were going to be moments of heartache and moments of personal triumph all set against the backdrop of Himmel Street and a tiny German girl named Liesel who wanted more than anything to be able to read.

When I was finished with The Book Thief, I realized that this book though set in another time was a story simply about living. We are all being “watched” by Death. We only have so much time. We know the end of our story. We’re going to struggle, but we’re going to have great success. Ultimately, we know we’re going to die. Like Liesel, we have choices to make about the risks we take, the people we love, and the impression we leave on those who cross our path along the way. This book made me want to write, to love, and very simply, it made me want to live every minute with a bit more color and a bit more passion. And incidentally, we do not know when Death will stop watching and actually come to call.

Always Looking Up
By Michael J. Fox

To put it mildly and in school appropriate language, I was less than thrilled to lose my job at San Ramon. I love teaching. I love my students. I love my “clique” of teacher friends. But if I hadn’t thought I might lose my job, I wouldn’t have applied to grad school. And now I am on a new adventure pursuing a degree in a field I had never given much thought to. Michael J. Fox, a well-known actor, did not plan on leaving the lights of Hollywood, but finding out he had Parkinson’s Disease forced him to change his focus and gave him a new purpose in life – finding a cure to a disease that affects millions of Americans. I listened to Fox read his book while I drove my first carload of stuff to Utah. Not only is Fox funny as hell, but he’s a good father, a good husband, and a genuinely good human being. He has taken an incredibly hard situation and made it just another stepping stone – an opportunity to better the lives of those around him. Just like Tuesdays with Morrie inspired me to teach, Always Looking Up makes me want to get involved with Fox’s foundation. My graduate degree, the one I would not have pursued had I not lost my job, will give me the skills I need to get involved with that foundation. There always is a positive spin to every negative situation. And as Fox explains, it’s definitely always better to look up because it’s amazing how life works out better than you could have ever imagined.

[I know you know that those are just the tip of the iceberg, but they're a start-- and this idea has been a great conversation piece over the last month. I love hearing what books would people choose (HINT, HINT).]


Lizzy Lambson said...

Awesome list. I've only read one of those--The Things They Carried, which is on my list of most influential books too. It looks like I have a few good reads ahead of me! Thanks, Jaclyn!

Katie said...

WOW! Thanks for the list..I can't wait to read some of them.. Hope you're having fun!

Charlotte May Hutchins said...

I love you and miss you! Keep doing great at BYU! Hugs~Mom

Juliana said...

Hey Jaclyn :)

I'm glad you found my blog and I found yours. I'll try to remember to come back and visit it!

The Book Thief is one of my favorite books and it's good to see we have that in common. I'll enjoy reading your reviews on Goodreads!