When I was still in the MFA program, we had to read Frye Gaillard’s The Books That Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir one semester. Gaillard, writer in residence at the University of South Alabama and the author of more than twenty books, says his first experiences with books were somewhat disappointing. Early on, he never really liked the fairy tales and stories he encountered, but then he came across Johnny Tremain, a children’s novel about the Revolutionary War. This altered everything for him as a reader, and from then on he had an entirely different relationship with books. His memoir recounts some of the most important experiences with books while paying tribute to the authors that enriched his life and changed it in some way. Gaillard’s musings blend memoir, history and critical examination to explore the works of literary greats such as Robert Penn Warren, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, and James Baldwin, and he makes it clear that he has come to see books as members of an extended family.
Although many books glorify the physical act of collecting and owning works of literature, there aren’t many like Gaillard’s, a book that illustrates and analyzes the inherent transformative power of the written page. He is able to capture the first experience of reading the right book at just the right time and then convey to the reader the effect it can have to change a person’s life, his in particular. Reading Gaillard’s book, you want to study your own library and identify the books that mattered in your own life.
Therefore, I’d like to introduce a new thematic category at literarylabors.com: Books That Mattered.
For me, a book that has always mattered is the one that critics often consider John Irving’s most significant work, The Cider House Rules. This novel follows the lives of several individuals from youth to maturity, grabbing the reader’s attention with its compelling narrative while presenting a clear justification for abortion in the end. As with several other of Irving’s works, I immediately identified with the humor in this book and developed a deep appreciation for the way he was able to use his prose to not only tell a story, but to clearly deliver a message and make a point as well.
This book mattered to me because it was the first time I clearly saw how an artist can use art to get a message across. Books can be so much more than a set of printed pages bound together as a volume. The Cider House Rules, however, matter in other ways as well. This novel was significant because till this day I associate it with an important period in my life. In my mid-20s, I had just moved to Austria and was struggling to find myself in more ways than one. One day as I walked along the main street in the town where I was living, I saw a photo of John Irving propped up in a display window, along with several of his books and a newspaper article in German. I read it and discovered that Irving had once studied in Austria and set his first novel there, in Vienna; for that reason, he had a big following in the alpine country. Intrigued, I started with that book and quickly read my way through his other books, finally coming to The Cider House Rules. At night, when I came home, Irving’s books became a kind of refuge for me, something that eased my transition into a place that would be my home for the next five years. As I learned more about Irving and his time at the university in Austria, I discovered many parallels between his life and mine, and it was really then I started to seriously consider what I had only previously dreamed of: writing novels and stories. One December night, as the snow fell in heavy sheets, I sat down at my beat-up old desk in a tiny room above a tavern near the tram tracks and started on my first novel. The only other thing on the desktop besides pen and paper, and a steaming mug of tea, was my copy of The Cider House Rules.