“You should see the library where I come from,” I tell people here. Hey, I rarely boast about “back home,” but in this one area I’m guilty of horn-blowing about those endless shelves of books and periodicals at the wonderful library in my little Maine hometown. The first time my daddy walked me up the hill to the towering red-brick building, I felt as if I’d gained admittance to a magic castle. And so I had. The books of our lives offer an enchanted world of pleasure and knowledge.
In Erin Bartell’s The Words Between Us, a character suggests that the books we read are “…like a treasure map. If I read closely and put all the pieces together, it should lead me to the real you.” I wonder, could that be true? Do the books of our lives trace a path through the years from childhood to old age?
“A child who carries a book with a bookmark in it is in two places at the same time.” –Tony Abbott
Can you tell your life story in books? What’s the first book you remember reading on your own?
Mapping My Life
The “real me” inside my head awoke with The Bobbsey Twins. I’m pretty sure the series starter was the first book I read all “my byself,” as my oldest daughter would say. After my parents discovered (oops) that I hid my new glasses in a paper bag in my desk throughout second grade, my mother bribed me with The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore to wear the blue cat-glasses the next school year. Then they began the weekly treks to the town library—they couldn’t afford my insatiable reading habit.
“You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy [or borrow] books, and that’s almost the same thing.” –Unknown
The Bobbsey Twins not only pushed me into putting on my glasses, they also launched me out the gate of my writing career. The books in my life nurtured my life in books, put a pencil in my hand, and set me creating stories while kneeling on the front porch of our country farmhouse. The themes of my first tales? Children in need, always. Funny thing, that.
With many girls my age, I shared a middle school obsession for Nancy Drew. Literally read dozens of them. And never guessed that “Carolyn Keene” was a composite author persona. Whatever I later thought of the formulaic style and sometimes cardboard characters, the teenage sleuth fired up my lifelong love for mysteries. And oh, to be forever 18, sigh…
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” –Dr. Seuss
Growing into Myself
Then…what first book did you identify with personally? My grandmother introduced me Johanna Spyri’s much-loved Heidi (the complete, original trilogy, believe it or not) and Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. Anne lived in Prince Edward Island, “way up in Canada” to me, but still close to home.
Closer than you might imagine, too, since except for her orphaned state, I often walked in Anne’s shoes. A klutz stumbling into scrapes, accused of day-dreaming, my head in the clouds of imagination. (Perhaps it stemmed from my poor eyesight?😊) Anne taught me, then and now, one of life’s most important lessons: That it’s okay—more than okay—to march to the music of a different drummer than the average person in your community.
“A book is a magical thing that lets you travel to far-away places without ever leaving your chair.” –Katrina Mayer
In junior high, I discovered many of the books and authors who’ve remained favorites my entire life: Elizabeth George Speare’s wonderful historicals, especially The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Phyllis A. Whitney’s international coming-of-age mysteries (Secret of the Samurai Sword, Mystery of the Golden Horn) and Madeleine L’Engle’s family-based sci-fi/fantasies featuring a misfit who matures (starting with Meg in A Wrinkle in Time).
The Abrus Necklace Mystery by Elizabeth Seibert furnished the unconscious background of Destiny at Dolphin Bay (my recently published first book) and almost everything I’ve written since. I know, I know, you’ve probably never heard of this obscure writer or her critic-snubbed YA romantic suspense. Humor me, I loved it—and finally tracked down a second-hand copy a few years ago.
Finding My Path
But in high school, however, I dived deep into the stream of bestselling Victorian Gothic from Victoria Holt and modern romantic suspense from Mary Stewart. These are the page-turners I read till 2 a.m. in the hall closet (please don’t tell my mother!)
By then, we’d moved to a big Victorian house across the street from the library. My father tended the tower clock while I spent so much time browsing shelves that I once got my picture in the newspaper as the local bookworm.
“I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.” –Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
At school I even read many of the classics. Think To Kill a Mockingbird, A Tale of Two Cities, and Wuthering Heights. Somehow I missed all of Jane Austen’s masterpieces until much later, although I did overhear my homeroom teacher discussing Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy with the guy who sat behind me. I didn’t figure we shared similar tastes, but I put it on my mental To-Read-Later list. Like, maybe in retirement… Heh, teach me a lesson!
You’ve probably noticed I haven’t mentioned anything from the “religious” market. Those days were pre-Janette Oke, before the explosion of popular inspirational publishing. There simply wasn’t a lot of fiction out then that featured the winning combination of Christian themes, top-quality writing, and riveting characters and plots.
I lived in the Chiloé Islands, writing Destiny at Dolphin Bay, when a gringa friend there lent me The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. This children’s book, the first of C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I’d yearned for all my life, ever since watching an educational-TV book review about it in fifth grade. Though it’s hard to believe, I never chanced across it in decades. Finally, I found my way into Narnia as an adult—and knew I’d stay on…
Tracing My Life
My little daughters and I also read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie together. Two more books/series where I recuperated what, even as an avid reader, I’d missed as a child.
Both these simple stories of adventure in your own backyard come loaded with more thought-stirring meaning than you’d imagine at a glance. They taught me that I, too, might tease out captivating tales from the humblest of raw material and the quietest of lives.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” –George R. R. Martin
It becomes harder and harder to choose the foundational books of our lives. I claim so many favorites! Among the scores of books I read every year, here’s a few others that stand out and why:
- The Stonewycke Trilogy by Michael Phillips & Judith Pella. In 1986, these set-in-Scotland books touched me emotionally for the first time since I was a kid. Phillips, editor of the reissue of George MacDonald’s classics, is considered one of MacDonald’s and C. S. Lewis’s spiritual offspring.
- The House of Winslow by Gilbert Morris. In this American historical series, starting with the Pilgrims in The Honorable Imposter, I first saw how to connect God with an exciting story.
- The Zion Chronicles by Bodie Thoene. Israeli history, ditto! And ditto again with the prolific Thoenes’ succeeding series.
- The multiple mysteries of Agatha Christie, which another missionary lent me “only” fifteen years ago. I was hooked and wondered where she’d hidden all my life. About this time I also discovered Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Tey, and other Golden Age detective writers, along with the modern medieval mysteries of Ellis Peters. Just fun brain exercise. And a return to Nancy Drew, now Miss Marple’s age.
- The Song of Albion, Stephen Lawhead’s wonderful Celtic time-travel allegories introduced to me by New Brunswick friends.
- Submerged and its sequels by Dani Pettrey, a lovely Christian. Anything by Lisa Wingate or Katherine Reay…
The books of our lives could go on and on. I’ve probably forgotten, momentarily, many of the most significant to me. For sure, ten minutes after I hit Publish for this post, I’ll remember something else I should have added to the list.
“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” ―Ralph Waldo Emerson
Even these I’ve mentioned may not be the best books or most well-known authors. Let’s just say I’m highlighting those that mark a watershed moment in my own life. A turning point in taste or truth, mind or heart.
In one way or another, all these books—stand-alones or series—have interwoven their themes with my life. They’ve transformed or truly inspired my walk through the world. These “books of our lives” have made me who I am. They’ve satisfied longings. They’ve imparted lessons, provoked thought, filled with joy.
And they’ve often reflected me, revealed me to myself. Sometimes shown me my child-like soul. Not childish, I hope, but not too cleverly complex, either. God give me wisdom, but not the worldly-wise outlook that chases the trend of the hour.
What are the books of your life?
“If all the riches of the Indies, or the crowns of all the kingdoms of Europe, were laid at my feet in exchange for my love of reading, I would spurn them all.” –Francois FeNelon
And what do we learn about ourselves from the books of our lives? No doubt, we can see our values, draw our vision, listen to the theme songs that emerge with regularity.
Changing the World
Just a quick glimpse back at my life in books gives insights about my interests in history, mystery, creativity, family legacy, learning, travel, children and young people, emotional and spiritual growth. The books that I’ve loved lead me to write stories that include many of those elements.
Do you recall how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s pre-Civil War book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, turned the American nation upside down? This book dared to defy an entire culture…and changed the world of its time. What superpower the books of our lives wield…not just for ourselves but for all around us.
I don’t care much, really, about fleeting fame and fortune. But I’m crazy for everyone I know to find out how the marvelous books of our lives can transform trash to treasure. Troubles and trials to truth and triumph. A story problem can teach us lasting lessons.
Christ’s beloved disciple, John, begins his visionary Book of Revelation: “Blessed is the one who reads…” (1:3, NIV). As God commanded him to write, He promises us a blessing if we READ. And as Anne Shirley concludes in Anne of the Island, a book of revelation comes to everyone’s life. We do well to read it with attention.
The Teacher of Ecclesiastes remarked wryly, “Of making many books there is no end” (12:12, NIV). Though it’s certainly true, that’s a very good thing, in my book! Let’s be sure to learn from the books of our lives, for …
“Books do not age as you and I do. They will speak still when we are gone, to a generation we will never see. Yes, the books must survive.” –Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place
I want to speak after I’ve left this world.
In Destiny at Dolphin Bay (and every book that follows), I have, like the Teacher of Ecclesiastes, “searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one Shepherd.” (12:10-11).
The Spanish Reina-Valera version calls them “agreeable words and word of truth.” Together, those words—and the books of our lives—work to motivate and touch hearts. And may they hit the nail heads to anchor us securely in truth.
“Blessed is the one who reads” –Revelation 1:3