Wednesday, September 02, 2009

School Days: Day 3

O, books.

O wonderful, delicious pastime worthy of my apostrophe.

I'll get right to it because I have a lot to say. Today's Oma Homework is this:

Assignment: Blog about a book you've read over and over. Prompt: "I can rifle the pages of ____and easily find my favorite part about____."

I can rifle the pages of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Dreams and easily find my favorite part. I have many. It's unfair to pick one favorite part of a book the same way it's unfair to pick one favorite child. This book touches me on a level I struggle to even describe. I feel a bit like it's a cop-out, choosing a book that I teach as my favorite book. It's a bit like saying your favorite outfit is your work uniform. Does it help that hours of painful drawing-out of student discussion and years of reading terrible student notes that are really repackaged Sparks Notes have not managed to kill this this book for me? Every time I read it, I love it more.

I discovered Animal Dreams and Barbara Kingsolver as a senior in high school, near the end of a long and sentimentally vapid year of Advanced Placement English Literature wherein I was saddled with such page-turners as A Year in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Crime and Punishment. Blech. After a steady diet of Russian and Boring, this book hit me like a clear September breeze. It was balm to my soul. I got lost in Kingsolver's prose, and it was the first time I remember feeling that someone else felt what I did but she was able to express it in a much more powerful way. It was one of the first times that I had to read something for school and I loved the heck out of it. One of the things I love most about the novel is that you can pull out almost any sentence and it stands alone.

I won't list all the quotes that I love, but I will link to them. There's a passage on the steam of a teakettle hitting her eyelids that is just about as apt as anything I've ever read. My favorite quote, as a parent, is God, why does a mortal man have children? It is senseless to love anything this much.

I now realize that when I first read this book at eighteen, I hadn't experienced enough life for it to affect me as deeply as it does now. Yet another benefit of being unfolded by time, to paraphrase Frisch. At the time I was amazed by Kingsolver's use of alternating points of view, the way Homero is losing his mind at the same time Cosima regains consciousness of her past. There is a sad and beautiful duality to the story. I appreciated the pain of Codi's miscarriage when I read it, but I couldn't feel it until years later when I returned to the book after experiencing the same loss myself. I remember reading the chapter immediately after I lost my first pregnancy. I cried so hard, seeing my feelings expressed on the page with more clarity and truth than I was able to find on my own.

This book is a part of my memory. I used it to answer the open question for the AP test my senior year, and I passed with a score of 5. I read it again in college when I was playing hooky from my textbooks and required reading. I read it after I miscarried. I read it as a new mom. I read it and tried to explain it to eighteen year olds. Each of these have meant that it affects me from another angle. I think I've owned (and lost) about four copies of it by now.

As I have continued to experience life and return to this book, it continues to reach out to me. This book isn't perfect; I don't really like the resolution and there are questions left unanswered after the last page. There are dropped story lines and the end seems to come too quickly. I accept it as imperfect the same way I accept my friends and family as imperfect, and love them anyway. No book has touched me the way this book has. Or perhaps its that this book was the first one to do so--in a way it marks a transition for me from the ravenous reading I did as a child wanting to consume any and all books to an adult who chooses carefully but finds a deeply satisfying pleasure in the beauty on the page.

This book isn't for everyone. If I need any evidence of that, I can look right at the AP English classes I teach every year. It is for me, though. It speaks to me and it speaks for me, I'd like to think. Every year there are a few people in class who will catch my eye during a discussion and I'll think they get it.


  1. I too love this book and look forward to teaching at least one day of the unit for Karin every year. In fact, I'm probably too excited about it and the 12th graders don't really get my "enthusiasm." I had no idea when I first read it that it may have parallels to my own life one day- interesting how that works out, isn't it? Anyway, I have read this over and over and still love it. I feel that way about most Kingsolver books though. Oh, and btw, I actually liked Ivan Denisovich! :) I think I'm the only one!

  2. I've never read this book, but I'm putting it on my list. When a book has something to offer at different stages of life, it is a Real Book. Thanks for your professional and personal insights!

  3. I liked Ivan, too. I think Animal Dreams and Ivan are the only books I read that year, though. Man I hated that class.