My high school English class devoted a great deal of time to teaching us how to navigate the rocky shoals of this essay. We were the high achievers, and as such were expected to make a superior showing in the college sweepstakes, scaling Ivy walls and hugging our Seven Sisters.
One ubiquitous question that year was the old standard, "What book has affected your life most profoundly, and why?" This was not a difficult question for me to answer.
When I was nine years old, our class had a library period on Thursdays. We would troop down the hall to the tiny school library and select new books for the week. The library’s collection was intended to serve the whole population of the school, so it contained everything from board books for the wobbly kindergarteners to Beverly Cleary romance novels for the 8th graders on the verge of being teenagers. However, we were all supposed to remain on our own grade level. But I made friends with the librarian and was occasionally allowed to smuggle out a romance novel camouflaged by Little Women.
I’ll admit that I had a bit of a swelled head during this time because I could read more quickly than my classmates. In frustration, a group of them demanded that I read the thickest book in the library. I followed the pointed fingers.
Gone with the Wind.
Well, it was too late to back down now, so I agreed, secretly hoping the librarian would deny me the chance to check it out and allow me to save face.
No such luck. She merely winked at me and sent me on my way.
I got home, settled down with a bowl of cereal, and began to read.
It took about a page for me to become completely engrossed. I spent the next four days in a dream, snatching paragraphs of the book whenever I could, reading in the closet, in the bathroom, on line walking back to class. I wasn’t only reading...I was living that book, gripped by the epic canvas and larger than life emotions, immersed in a world convulsed by war, by love, by hate, by passion. Finally I had found a book that matched my own dim vision of what I wanted from life--to feel and rage and love with my whole being. I fell in love with the antagonistic relationship that brewed between Scarlett and Rhett (I fell in love with Rhett, period. I tell TEG that I grew interested in him because he was "cynical and arrogant" just like Rhett). And I admired Scarlett immensely--seeing her flaws but forgiving them because she was so real--she wanted things, she chased them down. She was a dynamo. Scarlett made things happen.
When I finished the book, I put it down and went to the store for my mother in a haze. I felt bereft...all I wanted was to READ IT AGAIN. And so I did. After I was told to allow some of the other students to read it and stop checking it out every single week, I scrounged together my allowance and purchased my own copy, which I promptly read until it was in tatters. Then I bought it again, and my parents grew alarmed at my obsession. They hid the book from me. I moped and cried and carried on until they gave it back.
Thus, of course, I chose Gone With the Wind as the book that had changed my life...the book that had shaped my vision of men and women (for good and for ill), the book that ignited all of my nine year old passions for literature.
I was proud of that essay; I basked in the rare sensation that comes when you express EXACTLY what you were trying to say.
My English teacher handed it back. She had only written one comment.
"Inappropriate book choice?”
At first, I was puzzled. I had told the truth, after all. Then angry, "Obviously it was a good essay if that’s the only comment! And what does she mean by ‘inappropriate’?"
But before long, my inner Good Student piped up. She reminded me that Gone with the Wind doesn’t enjoy the literary reputation of, say, the Bible. Or Ulysses. I was flooded with embarrassment. The book which had changed my life wasn’t a Classic, wasn’t even considered a very good book. What did that say about me?
It turns out, my teacher was right, in a way. In college, I learned just how much I didn’t know about literature, how much I hadn’t read. I learned that my untrained enthusiasms were suspect and possibly indicative of a feeble intellect.
Sadly, that trend continued even while I was working at Big Publishing Houses. I tried to catch up, tried to cram classics I should have read as a child into my weekends, tried to sound smart.
But my rebellious enthusiasm betrayed me every time. I remember a colleague mocking my love for SARK’s work...even though we published her! She wasn’t Intellectual enough, and by extension, neither was I.
This has been my secret shame for too long--what I viewed as my propensity to enjoy "low art”--romance novels, soap operas, America’s Next Top Model. But what if you find unexpected inspiration in these scorned places? Love of a soap opera couple a few years ago lead me to show my writing to strangers for the first time--I wrote fan fiction celebrating them. Romance novels were the candy that got me through the hard, lonely slog of college literary criticism. America’s Next Top Model provides a humorous and visually appealing treat on a hard day. Aren’t these valuable gifts as well? A truly dreadful movie, Clash of the Titans, led me to Greek and Roman mythology. Should I have scorned that treasure because it came from an "inappropriate source”?
I’m learning that inspiration is a trickster, able to call to us in a million disparate voices...the voices of our whole soul, not only of our intellect. There is value in the odd, the crooked, the pulpy. Gone with the Wind led me to a life of passionate adoration of the written word, which yes, has contained many classics, as well as many romances, chick lit novels, and self-help books.
And it helped me win a bet with a bunch of other nine year olds.
Confess to me...what are your most secret, most cherished, inappropriate inspirations?