When Mrs. Kelly, my third grade teacher, read to us from The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner, I became a book lover. Before that, I hadn’t understood the power of a book to open up a new world and invite me in. Dick and Jane with their lively dialogue “Come Spot. See Spot run.” had failed to excite me. But those Boxcar kids were independent and adventurous. (Just like me!) I could scarcely wait for the next chapter.

Fairfield’s Lawrence Public Library soon became one of my favorite places, as did every library in every town I’ve lived in since.

I’ve spent countless hours immersed in the characters, places and stories in fabulous books, but a few left an indelible impression on my life.

“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbach. I was barely 17 when I began college and this was assigned in freshman English. Being small town, naïve and mostly ignorant about our history, I was appalled by this story.

“This is ridiculous,” I said in class. “Nobody would drive across country in an old truck with a dead grandmother in the back of it.”
That was the beginning of an awakening about a world beyond Benton and Fairfield, Maine.

“Gone with the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell. At age 19 I was completely swept away by this story. I wanted to be Scarlet O’Hara (but nicer). It was the first time I wanted a book never to end. I’ve been searching for others that engrossing ever since. The most recent one: “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr.

“All Quiet on the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque brought the horrendous reality of war— the gore, the suffering, the waste of young life— into unbearable focus. Unlike the star-studded movies of the 40s and 50s glorifying war, this book shoved the dreadful truth in my face.

“Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin. He was a white man who used chemicals and other ways to darken his skin to learn for himself what life was like for a black man in the South in 1959. I lived in white, white Maine, but even when I went to New York to work after college and met many black people, I was blind to discrimination because I lived and worked in a white world. I had roomed with a college kid from Alabama who was sweating a return home because de-segregation had begun. She was a sweet white southern belle and seriously worried that hatred could explode. Of course it did. “Black Like Me” instilled in me the first glimmer of understanding about white privilege and black disadvantage. I’m still trying to comprehend the tremendous and lifelong impact of both.

“The Thorn Birds” by Colleen McCullough. At a time when kids, housework and sameness were my life, I spent delicious snatched hours on a private island, luxuriating in a passionate and forbidden love affair. I couldn’t afford a vacation and had no time or desire for a lover but this book took me away for a needed respite.

“Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” by Gaylord Hauser. He began teaching Americans about the connection between healthy food and a healthy life in the 1930s, long before doctors and scientists began to confirm it.

When I discovered his books, including “The New Diet Does It,” I was producing babies at an alarming rate and wanted them to be as healthy as possible. Gaylord inspired me to eat more fresh foods, short-cooked vegetables, yogurt (which no one but weirdos ate) and leanest meats. A near miracle happened along the way. I was a confirmed sweetaholic, always making sure to have room for dessert and a stash of candy within reach. Eating the right foods killed my sugar addiction and influenced my children’s diets from then on.

“Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care” by Benjamin Spock saved me from panic over and over again as I tried to do the right thing for my growing family.
When three-month-old Eric rolled off the changing table and slammed into the floor as I turned to reach for something, I was terrified. I clutched my screaming baby to my chest, grabbed Dr. Spock off the book shelf and frantically looked for information. As Eric’s sobs wound down, I was relieved to learn that he had none of the signs of serious injury. Still, I worried about brain-damage after that blow to his soft little head. Eric is now 55, his siblings say he’s probably the brightest of the bunch and we all rely on his incredible memory.

I’ve read classics, read books on lists of the greatest books of all time and read books on the PBS Great American Read list, and I love books by Maine authors. Almost all add understanding and immense pleasure to my life. They just haven’t touched me in the way my personal (and incomplete) book list has.

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