Mighty Life List
Feb 14 2011

Flashback Monday: Life Lessons in Literature

In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, I’ve been posting articles that originally appeared elsewhere. This piece was published by the The Morning News in 2003.

Where were you when the family car broke down, when you first heard about oral sex, when you chose a political party? More importantly, what were you reading?

Book: The Holy Bible
Lesson: Don’t touch your sister’s stuff.

My family is not religious. There are no Bible stories at bedtime, no prayers before bed. My sister Raina’s bible was given to her at birth. To me, it is simply a giant, gilt-edged book with gold letters on the cover. It is shiny and heavy, and therefore compelling. At age two, I toddle into Raina’s room and yank a few pages out. Raina is eight, and she is displeased. The Holy Bible has driven us apart. My sister decides that she needs some baby-free space. From then on, it is a house rule that I am not allowed in Raina’s room unless she invites me.

Over the years, Raina teaches me to swim by bribing me with Ritz crackers, and holds on to the back of my bike as I wobble up the street, but she never feels particularly inclined to invite me into her room. When she moves out about a decade later, her bigger, sunnier room is passed on to me. I enter with an awed silence. I have almost no idea what it looks like.

Book: Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell
Lesson: Don’t eat the red ones.

This book got me thinking about how I would survive if I ended up in the wild fending for myself. Thus began the gathering phase of my childhood. I took all of the cereal bowls; filled them with pyracantha berries, crab apples, and mud pies; then hid them in the backyard. Mom found a bowl full of poisonous plants and screeched.

‘Have you been eating these!’

‘No. I’m saving them.’

‘For what?’

‘For later.’

‘Don’t eat these.’

‘OK.’

Mom bought a new set of bowls. I began to collect oleander blossoms.

Book: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Lesson: Check the oil.

We take a trip to our local Tower of Books where I pick A Little Princess off the shelf. The cover is pink (like my room), and has an illustration of a small girl with long brown hair. I read it twenty-one times, and the cover falls off. When mom decides we need a road trip after my dad dies, I pack it in my box of books. She loads my sister and me into a big van with a mattress in the back, and we sweat through most of the western states. My sister applies headphones, and I read a girl-shaped dent into the mattress.

The Grand Canyon is 121 degrees in the shade. Our insufferable tour guide tells a joke about a man who rides his horse off a cliff, and I throw up over the side of the tram. The van conks on our way home. We’re stranded in Seligman, Arizona, and Mom makes arrangements to fly back to California. She refuses to ship the huge box of books I’ve accumulated by then, insisting that I leave them with the granddaughter of the local motel owner. I pass my precious books to her one by one, explaining each plot, some character summary. She blinks at me, obviously bored. ‘Quite a bookworm, aren’cha?’ I shove the box at her and walk back to our room.

Book: Valley of the Horses, by Jean M. Auel
Lesson: It’s not the message, it’s the medium.

Mom and I begin reading Valley of the Horses at the same time. She reads ahead of me and decides that some of the content is ‘not age-appropriate.’ She is correct, as I learn after sneaking into her room and reading her copy in snippets while she’s running errands. A few weeks later, I get to thinking.

‘How do gay guys have sex, mom?’

She inhales, exhales, looks at me in the rear view mirror.

‘Well. I’m very uncomfortable telling you this.’

She looks back at the road, perhaps waiting for me to withdraw the question. I remain expectant.

‘Shit. OK, they say that if you’re old enough to ask the question, you’re old enough to know the answer.’

‘OK.’

‘Gay men have sex in the butt, Margaret.’

‘…Oh.’

That night, I find the book on my pillow. I mark the good pages and hide it under my bed.

Book: Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin
Lesson: Sex sells.

My high school English teacher asks us to present our favorite book to the class, and says she’ll have our peers grade our work. I choose Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, knowing that I’ll be mocked. But this book fascinates me. I decide to present it as I see it, as an anthropology book about us: our customs, preferences, and cultural quirks. I take the podium, ready to explain how weird etiquette is, how odd it is that we have entire books to tell us how to avoid offending other people.

The boys in the classroom are, not surprisingly, ignoring me. Amy Grimshaw has forgotten to cross her ankles. Each of the boys has his head tilted slightly to the right so as to overcome the minor obstacle of Amy’s cheerleading skirt. I receive an A.

Book: Backlash by Susan Faludi
Lessons: I am not a Republican.

Eric asks if I can drop off my notes, and when I get there he asks if I want some wine. I do. He wants to talk politics. He’s a Republican. Really? I am too. Do I want more wine? I do. He says that if people want to have kids, someone should be prepared to stay home and take care of them. I agree. He settles in next to me on the couch and pours more wine. And if men make more money, he says, doesn’t it just make sense that the women should be the ones taking care of the kids?

Well, I suppose it does… But if women were getting equal pay for equal work, then couldn’t you choose the parent best suited to caring for the kid? I mean, there are a lot of really nurturing men out there. I mean, I’ve met some women who have no business being full-time moms. And shouldn’t the right-wing female proselytizers, who are spending well more than eight hours a day preaching that women should be staying home with the kids, just take their own advice and leave the rest of us out of it? And doesn’t he want to marry a woman who’s smart and capable enough to make just as much as he is? And in a time when engineering jobs are among the most lucrative, did he ever have a toy that said ‘Math is hard!’ and giggled? And did he ever have an insipid, anachronistic band teacher who told him that he should play the flute because his hands were just too darn small for the saxophone? Well, did he? Did he?

Book: Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
Lesson: I want a family.

In college, I date a man who has a beautiful son. I give the baby a bath before bedtime, and then read to him as he falls asleep. There are a few pages in the middle of Where the Wild Things Are that have no words, just illustrations of wild things cavorting about with their terrible claws and terrible teeth. James is half asleep when we get to this part, but he lifts his head a few inches and points at the monster that’s jumping and growling beneath the moon. He taps the drawing and whispers, ‘He try to get the moon.’

35 Responses to “Flashback Monday: Life Lessons in Literature”

  • 101 Things Before You Die Says:

    I love that you color coordinate your book shelf.

    I’ve been a reader all my life; when I was younger, I spent long rides to and from school on the bus immersed in a book. I don’t have any memories I can think of right now that are strongly associated with the book I was reading at the time, but yours were beautiful.

  • Wendi Gratz Says:

    I love this – it perfectly sums up what books are all about. And – for me – explains in a nutshell why I stopped studying them and instead spent 20 years selling them.

  • Meg Says:

    Beautiful.

  • kate Says:

    plus, the book is always better than the movie. Well, except “the Princess Bride.” and “the Shawshank Redemption.” but every other book is better than the movie.

  • Kristina Says:

    I love this! And my 5th grade band teacher said my hands were too small for the sax too!! Quit the clarinet after one year.

  • Johanna Says:

    So great.

  • Sarah N. Says:

    So, so, so beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Kim Says:

    Love this one Maggie. I especially identify with having to give your prized box of books away.

    I can relate most of my major life events to what book I was reading at the time.

  • latenac Says:

    Great piece. I liked the Valley of the Horses one b/c it reminds me of my mom as well. And the Miss Manners one is totally something I would have done. I have a friend who color coordinated his bookshelves not that long ago and now I see it everywhere. I’m beginning to think the universe would like me to do the same.

  • Sarah Berry Says:

    What an incredibly beautiful article, I’m speechless.

  • kate Says:

    “He try to get the moon” has me swooning. Love that.

  • Meegan Says:

    Love this.

  • Allison Says:

    You hit the nail on the head with “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” I did the exact same thing when I was little, also gathering tortilla chips and pretending they were stone-ground bits of sustinence. What an inspiring book.

  • Sarah Says:

    That was the meanest thing I have ever read about having to give your books away. I’m in tears about it. I would have needed therapy. I can’t imagine being so cruel.

    I feel the need to hit every used bookstore and buy all the titles you had to give away.

  • Maggeh Says:

    Oh Sarah, I have totally had therapy. I have a hard time getting rid of books, but I don’t bite people or light things on fire anymore.

  • Maggeh Says:

    Also, collecting feathers for your cape.

  • Maggeh Says:

    Latenac, those aren’t actually my bookshelves. There was a bookstore in San Francisco that did this a few years ago as an art project. It was incredible. Soothing.

  • Kristy Says:

    When I was young I also did a trip cross country where I read the entire time, though for me it was the Little House on the Prairie series. My family would shout at me to look up out of my book to see all the “amazing” things we were driving past, and picked on me about reading for most of the trip.

    I considered myself vindicated when we stopped to visit some old historic sites and I was the only one in the family who could explain what a scythe was and how to use it, as well as various other farming tools from the 1800s.

  • Erica Lucci Says:

    This might be my favorite piece of yours. Wonderful.

  • Anne Says:

    I was that proverbial kid with the book and the flashlight under the covers. It’s one a the few traits that my oldest son inherited from me (that doesn’t drive me up a wall!)

    I love the idea of marking important chapters in life by the actual chapters you were reading. I might just have to steal this idea for a lesson plan.

  • Sara Says:

    This was so beautiful.

  • mp Says:

    My band teacher told me my hands were too small for the sax too. And in my 4th grader way I politely told him to shove it. My parents bought a sax and I was first chair until I graduate from high school. Band teachers aren’t always right.
    This story also shows just what a nerd I am.

    I find this idea soothing: that you can mark chapters of your life with books. I’m going to have to think on this.

  • Erin Says:

    Maggie, this may be my favorite thing you’ve written.

  • Tracey Says:

    Thank you! I just got off the phone with my daughter, who was ironically was in the library, to read to her your great post re the Valley of the Horses. She answered the phone in a whisper and ended with howling laughter!! She is still texting me! I think you may have another faithfull reader soon.

  • Maggeh Says:

    MP, I so wish I’d told my band teacher to shove it. Instead he pressured me to play flute, so I quit three weeks in. A fourth grade girl who wants to play alto sax? That is not a kid who’s interested in playing the flute.

  • Shana Says:

    You write about locally handmade Nutella pop-tarts and I forget what a incredible writer you are.

    Then I remember. The way you can make people laugh, cry, and relive the best and worst times of their lives…. Smitten, indeed! Hee.

  • AmyRose Says:

    I loved loved LOVED ‘Island of the Blue Dolphins’… oh the collecting and making things and just all of it! LOVE.

    It’s funny, loving particular books is so personal… I’m always delightfully amazed and thrilled when people mention them as favorites of theirs, too. ie: “YOU love xxxxx?!?!? I LOVE XXXXX, too!!!!!

    I dated a guy in high school just for having read Watership Down, my all-time favorite. That was our first conversation and, in retrospect, the highlight of our entire relationship. But I HAD to, right!?

    Loved this piece… thanks.

  • Jennifer K Gonnella Says:

    I am jealous of those of you who could/can read in the car(my son can). How many more books could I have read if reading in the car/bus/moving vehicle didn’t make me urp!

  • Sarah Says:

    This was so beautifully written. It makes me want to go through my bookshelves and remember where I was when I read them. Lovely.

  • Lindsay Says:

    That last line convinced me that maybe I should have children too. I loved reading this. I’d like to go through my childhood bookshelves as well now.

  • Shay Says:

    Oh mylanta. I would have turned into a crazed she-wolf if you had made me give away my books as a kid. Or you know…now.

    Sheesh, I want to travel back in time and give mini-you a giant hug. Great post and great way to mark time. Love it!

  • TRS Says:

    Book: The Great Gatsby
    Lesson: Literature is Art
    I’m 14 years old, lying on the banister of the deck, reading The Great Gatsby for school on balmy spring night. The sky is clear and sprinkled with stars. The narrator, Nick looks above West Egg and describes the silver pepper that dots the sky, and I look up and see the same silver pepper. I always loved reading, but I was enraptured by Fitzgerald’s ability to describe my sky and Nick’s sky the same way and place me at the same swanky party in West Egg.

  • Sommar Says:

    [this is good]

  • Liz Says:

    Sorry – a little late to this but just have to add – Flowers in the Attic. Lesson: Mom kicks ass! Read the series betwen 5th and 6th grade while watching my baby brother in the back yard. 6th grade teacher calls to tell mom that my reading material is not appropriate. Mom tells her to call if my grades are bad!

    My mom has been gone for 10 years. Your article just made me feel so close to her. Thank you.

  • Martina Lynne Says:

    I’m working on my Ph.D. in English literature and, well, sometimes (like when it’s really excruciatingly hard or I’m not getting through to my students or I fear that I’ll fail and become a great big loser) I wonder why I want to do this thing, this thing where I talk to people about books for the rest of my life and hope that they’ll love them, too, and think that they’re important, too. And those are the times when I kind of wonder if any of what I do really matters.

    Reading things like this makes me stop wondering. It helps me know that what I do is important. It helps me remember how books have changed my life and how much I want to be a part of that. Thank you for that reminder. So much.