Once Upon a Time

I find Twitter to be a waste of consciousness, but the Redhead still frequents it.  She does it with certain Sicilian tendencies: “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Occasionally she will read aloud a post that I find interesting.

Last night she asked me “What was the first book you read that changed your life?  The Bible excluded.”

I thought some about that.  Looked at the ceiling.  Stared into space.  A couple of minutes went by.

“I didn’t mean it to be that serious of a question.”

But it was a very serious question, at least to me.  I have read a lot of good books.  But the first that changed my life?  I struggled to recall them all, working backward to childhood.

My first impulse was The Catcher in the Rye.  I read that one in twelfth grade at the urging of my rather eccentric English teacher Mrs. Hammonds.  It is a book that was (and still is) banned in many public schools.  It was on the RESTRICTED list in my school library, which meant it was behind the counter and my momma had to sign a permission slip for me to read it.

Thank God I have a good momma. 

And thank God she never read The Catcher in the Rye.

I can’t say that book changed my life, but it certainly changed my outlook on life.  I knew a lot of characters in that story, especially the narrator.

But I digress.  Read it yourself — but only if your momma allows it.

I knew there had to be a book before that one.  It took another ten minutes or so and I had my answer.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles.

“What?  I have never even heard of it.  Why?”

I had to admit that I did not recall much about the story, so many years later.  I do remember that it was about a young man who went to a war and came out a very different person.  He had to declare a “separate peace” – a peace with himself.

But that’s not how it changed my life.  It wasn’t the story per se, it was the type – the first “adult” book I remember reading.

If you were properly educated in the English language, you know that all the best childhood stories begin and end with two simple phrases:

“Once upon a time…”


“They lived happily ever after.”

There is beauty in that by design.  It is comforting when momma is about to put out the light and you are pretty sure there is a monster under your bed. 

But we soon come to realize that those stories aren’t representative of life in mortal flesh.  At least not the “happily ever after part.”

I had not forgotten how I came to read A Separate Peace.  Miss Klinner, my seventh-grade English teacher, gave our class the book as an assignment.  As incentive, she offered to give a copy to the first student who read it.  I got to keep mine two days later.  It is still in my personal library.  I can put my hands on it right now, with or without the mysterious electrical construct that is “The Cloud.”

Perhaps it was not the book that changed my life so much as it was the teacher.  She taught me the nuts and bolts of a complicated language through diagrammed sentences and conjugated verbs, but she also showed me how to love and appreciate the never-ending pleasure of reading good books.

I have always loved her for that, as I continue to love the written word that imitates life.

And that may be about as close to as “happily ever after” as a man can get.


20 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

  1. I had to read a separate peace in school also. It turned me onto a long list of books about various wars that still holds my attention today. While this certainly has changed my life in how I view global politics, I think another book changed how I view people everyday. It was my first unassigned book so I placed a premium on its content. It took an hour of scanning the spines for catchy names, then the sleeves for intriguing content and finally the authors bio for credibility.
    I’m a book snob. For good reason. In seventh grade science, we watched Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. In it there was an episode on the library of Alexandria. He described how immense the library was and how important the contents to civilization only to be burned to the ground and its librarian … well it’s too graphic to describe. But more constructively, he said if he was to read a book a week for his entire life it would only be one-tenth of the library. The trick was to know which books to read.
    Finally I settled on man child in the promised land by Claude Brown. It is an autobiography about a black kid in 1940s-1950s heroin flooded Harlem. He moved in and out of detention and jail and survived. As an eight grader, it made me recognize how fortunate I was, how destructive drugs are, and most importantly how we all have a story to tell and I never know just by looking at the cover, sleeve or bio.

    1. Well thanks for taking the time to read this little essay. I think your comments are a better story than what I wrote. I do not know anything about the library at Alexandria or Man Child, so you have given me some things to read.

  2. Have to admit, Ray, reading your columns is a highlight for me. You take simple experiences, similar to my raisin’ of course, and make them funny, profound, or make me appreciate something I should have realized earlier. Keep it up my friend, you are a fresh breeze in the stale air of that electronic cloud!

  3. I once made a presentation where I talked about life altering books…….here are some I included in that talk……
    “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl changed my life forever. It helps to put suffering into perspective. He inspired me though his resilience in overcoming what many would think would be impossible to overcome….but in the end, our lives are only ours to do with it what we like.
    “O Rugged Land of Gold” by Martha Martin handed to me by my book editor when I was covering stories on my beat with a baby on my back.
    “Necessary Losses” by Judith Viorst…there is no personal growth without loss…great for people going through a divorce.
    And of course Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” one of the greatest business books of all time. I think I would be a lesser version of myself if it weren’t for all the books that I found to help me through the difficult times in my life.
    Thank for reminding me Ray!

  4. Grapes of Wrath was my first book forced on me by 7th-9th grade English teacher. About 18 people in my graduating class so yes, we went to school barefoot if we felt like it. That teacher, Mrs. Buck, changed my life by breaking down grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, etc. and made sure the woods roaming kids got it.
    I probably made a mistake in a sentence above. 🙂

  5. I’ve been ruminating since I read your post, Ray, it’s a good topic to ponder.

    One book that changed my life, perhaps not the first book, was “Gone with the Wind.” I hadn’t seen the movie somehow by the time I turned 16. I picked the book up in the school library when I was the same age as Scarlett as the novel opens. My friends were appalled because it was so thick they said they’d never be able to read it. I read it. I learned how life will cascade forward crashing on the reef our own obsessions, the movements of history, and the perfidies of men. Women do what we need to do. “Tomorrow is another day.”

    1. That is an interesting choice. I never read it, though the Redhead did in adulthood because she liked the movie. The quote is one of her mantras.

  6. I grew up with a book in hand but I can’t pin point any one title that changed or guided my life. But I would have to say that reading anything; books, notes, newspapers, research papers and now a mainstay in all our lives, Google, took me into another world with each read. Our city library was my second home in my youth. The world was at my fingertips every time I walked through those doors into our Carnegie built library. A good friend once said to me, “You can go anywhere in the world with a book”. A quote I still practice to this day.

    1. We are both fortunate in that we had access to a good library. I am somewhat concerned that technology will eventually eliminate the library, and that would be a tragedy.

  7. Our library is currently open to the public. I remembered your recommendation and I made it a point to take a picture with my cellphone. So this evening I will read the book. Our library system in my community is often my special place to go.

    1. I hope you enjoy it, and I am glad you have a good library to visit. I sometimes worry that libraries will have the same fate as daily newspapers.

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