It’s hard to write about something so intricately woven into my psyche, that parsing it out seems like an autopsy. I was a shy, introverted child living in a home with a lot of challenges. I learned to read young and used to believe that books were my only friends. Teachers often wrote in my report cards, something to the effect of “Michelle needs to participate in class discussions”, never realizing that I was secretly reading a book tucked out of view on my lap.
If location is everything, I had everything. We lived half a block from the public library. I was allowed to walk, on my own, down the alley from our apartment and across the street to my second home. It was a nondescript stone building with wide concrete steps. It was my paradise. I would stroll among the stacks for hours, compulsively running my fingers across the books, settling into the smell of old wood floors and dusty volumes. The librarian, who always looked severe, treated me with kindness, never telling me that I should run along home, even when I had been there for hours.
My heroes of childhood were Abraham Lincoln, Nellie Bly, and Marie Curie. In Abe Lincoln Gets His Chance by Frances Cavanah (1959), I learned that a great sense of humor can be part and parcel of being a leader. Nellie Bly taught me that to make a difference, you have to go outside of your comfort zone. Her exposure of what was called the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell Island in 1887, caused significant improvements in the care of the mentally ill (miles to go on that one). Marie Curie resisted gender stereotypes for her love of scientific research and eventually sacrificed her life for it. The pursuit of knowledge could be a risky, but worthy pursuit.
“A capacity and taste for reading gives access to whatever has already been discovered by others.” Abraham Lincoln
Desiring self-sufficiency and being poor early on led me to countless “how to” books. I loved following the directions in drawing books by Ed Emberly. I learned how to make true arts and crafts – out of scraps. I learned how to beautify things that were old and ignored. I learned to make do and make better, from the garden I painted on cinder blocks to hold up my bookshelves in college, to the homemade cards I sent to people when I could afford nothing else.
My worldview and life philosophy is constantly evolving, but here are the books that have left an impression over the years:
Being Good, A short introduction to ethics by Simon Blackburn
This tiny volume, I think, is brilliant in its ability to cover so much ground. It really gives one a lot to ponder, even if, on occasion, you disagree with the writer’s perspective.
Between Parent and Child by Dr. Haim G. Ginott
This book changed me as a parent. The key thing was that discipline is not punishment – it is teaching. This changed the nature of how I learned to interact with my child and beyond that, how to communicate better with adults.
A History of God, The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Karen Armstrong
Critics will argue and dogmatic believers will critique, but I found this history of monotheistic traditions and religions so helpful while navigating through media reports, when religious beliefs are incorrectly characterized.
Facing West, The Metaphysics of Indian Hating & Empire Building by Richard Drinnon
Even when our history in this country is ugly, we can only benefit by understanding and tracing its origins.
A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power
Unfortunately, this text is just as relevant today as it was 10 years ago in understanding America’s and the United Nations’ roles in these horrific world events.
Women & Self-Esteem, Understanding and Improving the Way We Think and Feel About Ourselves by Linda Tschirhart Sanford and Mary Ellen Donovan
There were a lot of great examples and concepts that made me examine my own belief system as a woman and how I moved about in the world.
Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor
The biggest concept here: Belief is not memorizing and proselytizing, it is doing. It helped me to shake off all the fundamentalist teachings I grew up with and focus on action. How do my actions reflect my beliefs?
When Things Fall Apart, Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön
I’ll admit, I’m just a huge fan of Pema Chödrön. Many of her works repeat the same messages, but I don’t think I can ever be reminded enough. Her greatest hits for me are: changing negative habitual patterns, being open to experiences, cultivating compassion.
I must stop myself here – so many books, so little time! I have never wished to be immortal, except for all the books that I will not have time to read.