Recently on Facebook I’ve been seeing people post about the ten books that changed their life. I don’t think that venue allows for the proper explanation of those choices, so for a while I’ve been wanting to do a post about mine. I’ve been procrastinating, and my mom, who recently started her own blog, beat me to it! (You can read her post HERE.) So I’m going to copy her and break my post into two parts.
It was hard enough coming up with ten; I’m not going to attempt to rank them. Instead I will count them down in the order I read them.
10. “Ramona and Her Father”, Beverly Cleary
This book was published in 1977, but I wasn’t around then. Ramona is 7 in this book, so I assume I read this around the time I was 7, but I am not sure. I think many books in the Ramona series impacted me, but a few things stood out for me in this book.
The book opens with Ramona hoping her father will take their family to Whopperburger because it is pay day. While waiting for her father to get home, she’s already imagining what she will order. Going out to eat is a big deal for her; a special treat. I felt this way as a small child (and still do). I remember one time my mom came home from work with a couple of Little Caesar’s pizzas (in those days they sold them two at a time–Pizza Pizza!) and I was so surprised and filled with joy, even though I’d just eaten an entire pack of saltine crackers. I can remember other times my mom and I got carry out from Jin’s, a combination Chinese food and barbecue restaurant. That may sound odd but it was delicious and I am still mourning the fact it closed years ago (as are most people in Carbondale). Each meal from a restaurant was like a present. And thus began my “food as reward” mentality.
Unfortunately Ramona’s father gets laid off and they don’t go out to eat. Ramona and her sister Beezus are worried for their family, though their parents don’t seem to realize this.
I can relate to this. As a child I struggled to find the balance between wanting everything kids at school had and knowing my mom didn’t have the money to pay for it all. I remember being on the phone with out of state family members and my mom telling me to hurry because long distance calls were expensive (remember the days of paying extra for long distance?). I think this awareness set the foundation for how fiscally responsible I am now. I think long and hard before spending money on anything I don’t classify as a need and I tend to use things forever, just like we did when I was a kid.
As Ramona’s father’s unemployment anxiety increases, so does his smoking. Beezus tells him his lungs are going to turn black, which scares Ramona, and makes her spring into action.
She begins making signs like “cigarettes start forest fires”, “smoking is hazardous to your health”, and “smoking stinks” and hung them all over the house so her father could see them. I remember doing something similar as a child. I’d gotten a “smoking stinks” button in school and gave it to my mom, hoping she would quit. I think this was in the early 80s, which my mom informs me was the second time she tried to quit. The third time was 1992, when it finally took. I’d begged my mom to quit after I began the D.A.R.E. program in 6th grade, telling her she was going to die. Apparently scare tactics work!
9. “Who’s Afraid of Sixth Grade?”, Janet Adele Bloss
I read this book before starting junior high. Junior high began with 7th grade at Lincoln Junior High School, but many of the issues I faced as a 12 year old were the same 11 year old Skye faced in this book.
My main source of anxiety at this time of my life was bras and changing in front of other girls in gym class. I’d just started wearing a bra (didn’t really need one but I had one) but the idea of baring myself in front of other girls was horrifying to me, especially girls who were not late bloomers. I had no idea how I was going to do this, and was happy to have a character in a book who was as scared as I was.
This book addressed many other things that make adolescence so awkward, such as comparing yourself to others. For me, I was one of the shortest girls in my class until junior high, and then I had a major growth spurt and was all of a sudden one of the tallest, which I still am (I’m around 5’11”). For someone that did to want to stand out this was not ideal.
Another problem Skye faced was the fact she hadn’t gotten her period yet, which made her feel isolated from other girls who had. I remember this being a major life trauma for me as well. Feeling like it would never happen; feeling like a baby because it hadn’t; feeling left behind by other girls who had experienced this. It’s pretty funny that I wanted it so badly back then considering how I feel about it now, but I really did want it then–I felt inadequate. Skye eventually got hers, which gave me hope that I would soon as well. Not so much; had to wait until I was almost 15.
8. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”, Stephen Chbosky
I found out about this book while reading a magazine; maybe Entertainment Weekly. There was a little box at the bottom of the right page that contained a small interview with the lead singer of Train. In it, he said the book he’d recently read that really affected him was “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. I’m not a big Train fan, but his ringing endorsement made me read the book and then recommend it to all my college friends who loved it as well.
The story follows Charlie, an awkward teenager, as he struggles to navigate high school. He meets a couple people, a brother and sister, who befriend him and introduce him to their friend group. Charlie also develops a friendship with a teacher who recommends books to him outside of what they are reading for class.
Books and music become the framework on which the story develops. Both are very important to me too, so I loved this. I love how a song can remind you of a place and time in your life, and more importantly, about how it felt. Through Napster (ah, the days of free music) I downloaded all the songs mentioned in the book.
Charlie describes feeling “infinite” when listening to a great song in a great moment–for him, hearing a song that none of the three characters know before a homecoming party. I know that feeling well and love it. There’s nothing like running when a great song comes on and you feel like throwing your hands in the air and screaming the words in joy because in that moment you are strong and can do anything.
This book is so quotable. Here are some of my favorites:
“Things change, and friends leave, and life doesn’t stop for anybody.”
I posted this quote a lot in the weeks before graduation, which really bummed my friend Dan out.
“Sometimes people use thought to not participate in life.”
*raises hand sheepishly*
“So I guess we are who we are for a lot of reasons. And maybe we’ll never know most of them. But even if we don’t have the power to choose where we come from, we can still choose where we go from there. We can still do things. And we can try to feel okay about them.”
I’ve read this book at least three times and now I want to read it again!
7. “Nickel and Dimed”, Barbara Ehrenreich
In this book, Ehrenreich takes jobs as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing-home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk in an attempt to document what living on a low wage job is like.
I read this after college while working my white collar job as an accountant, but I’d not forgotten what other jobs are like. Minimum wage jobs are taxing, often requiring a person to be on their feet all day, and in my experience there’s little room for praise, only criticism. I remember the feeling of working so quickly at my minimum wage job at Ponderosa that I had nothing to do, and rather than receive praise for my efficiency, I’d be chided for standing by the buffet, making sure it was full.
Thankfully when I had that job I was in college and not relying on the income to support myself; Ehrenreich was trying to support herself with her jobs. She soon realized she needed to work more than one job at a time to have enough money to live, which was exhausting. Her life became work and she could still barely afford a place to live; resorting to paying by the week at a cheap hotel when she was in Minnesota. During this time she was working at Walmart, which was probably the most impactful part of the book for me. She spends her day picking up clothes people have left in the changing rooms or dropped in the wrong place and rehanging them. I was struck by how monotonous this would be and how much her back probably hurt from doing this. Since reading this book, I make sure to rehang my own clothes after trying them on (even when you’re encouraged to leave them on a rack) and I’m always conscious of leaving things how I found them. No need to create extra work for an employee that doesn’t make enough to buy kitchen items and has to live on fast food.
This book is a wonderful exercise in empathy, and really made me appreciate how easy I have things in comparison to others tied to minimum wage jobs. So often you hear the refrain that the poor should “get a job”. Nickel and Dimed illustrates the plight of working poor in this country and shows it’s not that simple.
6. “The Simple Living Guide”, Janet Luhrs
Sometime after reading Nickel and Dimed I was sitting with my mom at a Barnes and Noble in Fairview Heights and complaining about how I felt very overwhelmed by “stuff” in my life. When I began working full time and had my own money to spend, I got caught up in the novelty of it and spent a lot on clothes, books, DVDs, etc. I bought a lot of stuff on eBay. Soon I reached a point where the newness of those items wore off and the clutter felt suffocating to me. As I vented to my mom (I think I even mentioned wanting a book that would address this problem) she pulled out a book she was currently reading, “The Simple Living Guide”. Realizing this addressed exactly what I was talking about, she later gave me my own copy.
The book discusses living mindfully. Do you ever get to work and realize you don’t remember any of the details of how you got there? I do, all the time. A different approach is to look at everything as you pass it; appreciate the trees for their greenness and the people on the street, united by the fact they’re all walking to where they need to be. Each moment of life is a gift; folding laundry doesn’t have to be a chore you rush through; with each fold you can reflect on the experiences had by the people wearing the clothes and feel happy knowing this task provides your loved ones with the ability to have new experiences in the clothes.
Keeping up with the Joneses is another central point. You’re never going to keep up, so why try? It’s easy to get caught up in this mentality but spending money often leads to stress after the initial high of the purchase is gone. You’ll always need something better to replace what you once thought you had to have. Would you rather have stuff or experiences? Many of the best things in life truly are free.
One of these free things is what she calls the “earth gym”. I’m sure I drove Tracy crazy referring to this as I read the book, but as someone who has spent money on exercise equipment in the past that eventually became covered in dust, this really resonated with me. It’s free to walk or run outside. Plus, when you are in nature you have an opportunity to reflect and realize the world is so much bigger than you and your problems.
I struggle with packing for trips, falling into the “what if I need this?” trap. Luhrs is a light packer, asking herself “would I rather be a fashion plate or would I rather have less to carry?” I try to remind myself of this as I fight the urge to add one last thing to my suitcase.
This book really centered me and reminded me to take joy in simple things I truly love…petting animals, feeling the breeze on my skin, drinking a warm cup of coffee on a cold morning, washing and chopping produce. Soon after I got out of college I felt I had to buy a new car. I had money and I wanted it. Now I’m still driving that car, nearly 11 years old, and have no similar compulsion to purchase a new car simply because I have money and others have new cars. This book truly changed the lens through which I see the world.