In My Own Words: Books and youth

By: RABBI RACHEL ESSERMAN, EXECUTIVE EDITOR

I’m not particularly nostalgic. I spend very little time thinking about the early parts of my life unless they somehow impact the present. Unlike some people I know, I never experienced a halcyon period – a time that seems perfect in retrospect. The main exception to reviewing years gone by occurs when a book stirs my memory. That happened recently when reading Ann Hood’s “Morningstar: Growing Up with Books.”
Hood’s short memoir discusses the effect books had on her life. Neither of her parents were interested in reading; her mother considered it a waste of time and the buying of books a waste of money. For Hood, books widened her experience, giving her what she needed to escape her small town and become a novelist. I’ve read fewer than half of the books she mentions, so it wasn’t the novels themselves that brought back memories. Nor was it her writing about her blue-collar, Italian family since mine couldn’t have been more different: my middle-class Jewish parents encouraged us to read. What Hood did, though, was make me think of books that influenced me – in this case, two books I read after graduating from college when I was facing health problems that left me feeling uncertain about my future.
The first book was “Flotsam” by Erich Maria Remarque. My father introduced me to Remarque’s writing when I was in sixth grade. His best known novel,”All Quiet on the Western Front,” was never my favorite. In high school, I preferred “Arch of Triumph,” a novel about refugees in Paris in 1939, in particular a German doctor who had to practice his trade illegally. There is drama and romance, and I’d read it several times by the end of my college years. However, it was Remarque’s other novel about refugees, “Flotsam,” that spoke to me when my life was in a flux and my future seemed insecure. It also tells the story of displaced persons who wandered Europe after World War I because no country wanted them. What appealed to me was the lesson one refugee taught: that in order to survive, they had to forget about the past and focus on the present, on making it through today. As someone who had to give up many of her dreams, that was the message that I needed: let go of the past and face my new reality.
The second book – or rather the trilogy – that spoke to me during that time couldn’t have been more different. The fantasy series “The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever” by Stephen R. Donaldson tells of a man with leprosy who is transported to another world. There he is thought to be in the incarnation of its greatest hero, something he finds impossible to accept. To keep his sanity, he won’t allow himself to believe the world is real, yet he finds it impossible to remain neutral. The plot is complex and the prose filled with anguish. The title character is in great despair, something that I could relate to since my life felt out of my control. Yet, the lesson I learned didn’t come from Thomas Covenant. Instead, I listened to his friend, Saltheart Foamfollower, a giant who believed that one must fight despair with laughter. I clung to that message over the years. Donaldson wrote a second trilogy and a final four-book series, but none of them affected me quite the same way.
Hood notes that sometimes a book can have a profound effect on our lives. She writes, “[that book] falls into your hands at just the right moment when you need to read it. It transforms you. Perhaps it lifts you up when you are at your lowest; perhaps it shows you what love is, or what it feels like to lose love; perhaps it brings you places far away or shows you how to stay put when you need to.” These books don’t have to be classics; they just have to resonate the way other, sometimes far greater, works don’t. That’s why the echo of these books remains with us, even if we forget the plot or the characters’ names. It’s that feeling – that sense of understanding – that speaks to our hearts forever.