If you’re a reader, chances are you have A Book. You know, That One Book that feels like it so utterly and completely belongs to you. You’ve probably read it a billion times, you know all the lines, everything that happens to you reminds you of scenes from that book, you’re constantly quoting it, you’ve watched every single adaptation of it (if there are any), etc. etc.
So today I wanted to talk about Those Books: books that impact us so profoundly that they become a part of our lives in a way that no other book has, books that have grown with us as we’ve grown up and books that have made us grow.
So in the spirit of That One Book that we (hopefully) all have, today I’m going to talk about a specific genre of books that I’ve become interested in lately: books that are about their authors’ relationship to what is, for them, That One Book. These are non-fiction books that intertwine these authors’ lives with a work that has itself become intertwined in their own lives.
But first, since I thought it was fitting, I’m going talk about My Book: how I came to it, why I love it, and why it’s so personal to me.
Pride and Prejudice is That One Book for me.
Oh, Pride and Prejudice. I cannot begin to explain to you how much I adore this book. And it’s one with which I have a long and complicated history. I came to Pride and Prejudice in 2014 during my junior year of high school. My friend was a huge fan of Jane Austen and told me that I had to read P&P. I’d seen nothing but love for it, so I decided to read it to see what all the fuss was about. What did I think of it? I’ll let my reviews from June 28, 2014 speak for itself,
But wait! There’s more!
(I wouldn’t recommend reading your book reviews from 6 years ago lol…)
As you can see from my review, I was not impressed. In fact I was so bored by P&P that the first time I tried to read it I flat out DNF’d it. But then I watched the 2005 movie and loved it so much that I decided to go back and just finish the novel so I could be done with it.
I’m not saying that if you read a classic and dislike it then you’re dumb, but to be completely frank I think I was just too stupid to get P&P at the time lol. I had had no previous exposure to Jane Austen, so the language and social customs were very new to me. I also just wasn’t patient enough to really appreciate the almost clockwork precision of its narrative.
Luckily, I went back to the novel in 2017 and reread it and the rest is history. I’ve read it about 7 times since 2017, and will be sure to reread it countless more times in the coming years. I like to read it at least once a year, if not more (the Rosamund Pike-narrated audiobook is so good; if you haven’t listened to it you definitely should).
P&P has affected pretty much every aspect of my life. I think about it all the time when I’m meeting new people and trying to ascertain what they’re like. It’s a book that just has so much to say about social evaluation and second chances, about how and why we judge people the way we do. Of course I love the hate-to-love romance (who doesn’t), but to me it’s about so much more, about forgiveness, about the humility it takes to admit that you were wrong, about trying to make amends even when it seems like you’re past the point of making them.
It’s also just one of the smartest and funniest novels I’ve ever read. The fact that it’s more than 200 years old and still capable of being not only funny, but actively relevant, speaks to just how brilliant of a novel it really is.
As trite as I know it sounds, reading Pride and Prejudice feels like coming home to me. It is so familiar, so comforting, so delightful. I can read it any place, at any time.
So that was my history with the book that is, for me, That One Book. Given this, I wanted to look at some books that explore that in a more substantial, specific way. These are non fiction books whose authors have taken a book (or a collection of books by an author) and examined the way in which that book has affected their lives: how it has gotten them through a tough time, or made them think of something differently, or changed their decisions or actions in some way.
I don’t have a lot of these books to discuss, so if you know of any books that are in the same vein please feel free to recommend me some, but I still wanted to talk about them so here we go. (I’ve also only read one of these three books so I can’t talk about the latter two with as much detail.)
#1: What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life
This is such a lovely book. It’s exactly as its title suggests: Mark Doty’s relationship to Whitman’s poetry, and how his readings of Whitman’s poetry have affected his approach to his life as well as why Whitman matters so much to him. Here’s a part of the synopsis:
Effortlessly blending biography, criticism, and memoir, National Book Award winning poet and best-selling memoirist Mark Doty explores his personal quest for Walt Whitman. […] What Is the Grass is a conversation across time and space, a study of the astonishment one poet finds in the accomplishment of another, and an attempt to grasp Whitman’s deeply hopeful vision of humanity.
First of all, Mark Doty is an excellent writer, and his close readings of Walt Whitman’s poetry are measured and passionate, substantive without being dry or lifeless. And in case you’re worried, this doesn’t at all read like an academic work. What Is the Grass reads more like a half-memoir, half-literary criticism, though the two merge more often than not to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts.
I’d never read any Walt Whitman poetry before I read this, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment of it at all. That’s the thing about this genre of book, I think: the author’s passion and love for the work in question is so apparent that, if they’re a good writer, you don’t need to have their level of familiarity with that work (or indeed any familiarity with it at all) to enter into their love for it.
You can find What Is the Grass here on Goodreads.
#2: Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels
Okay but you guys had to know that I was going to include another Austen-related book in here, right? Seriously, though, this book sounds like everything I wanted it to be. Here’s the synopsis:
“Austen Years is a deeply felt and sensitive examination of a writer’s relationship to reading, and to her own family, winding together memoir, criticism, and biographical and historical material about Austen herself. And like the sequence of Austen’s novels, the scope of Austen Years widens successively, with each chapter following one of Austen’s novels. We begin with Cohen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she raises her small children and contemplates her father’s last letter, a moment paired with the grief of Sense and Sensibility and the social bonds of Pride and Prejudice. Later, moving with her family to Chicago, Cohen grapples with her growing children, teaching, and her father’s legacy, all refracted through the denser, more complex Mansfield Park and Emma.”
A “deeply felt and sensitive examination of a writer’s relationship to reading, and to her own family, winding together memoir, criticism, and biographical and historical material” is exactly what I’m getting at with this genre of book; I couldn’t have said it better myself. Also, are we noticing any similarities with the synopsis of What Is The Grass?
Mark Doty synopsis: “Effortlessly blending biography, criticism, and memoir”
Rachel Cohen synopsis: “winding together memoir, criticism, and biographical and historical material”
And so a pattern emerges. Anyway, as I said, I haven’t read this book yet, but I just got approved for an e-ARC of it through NetGalley and I can’t wait to read it. (I’m considering doing a whole Jane Austen-centered reading month in June so if I end up doing it, I’ll definitely get to Austen Years then.)
As a little sneak peek, here are the first lines of this book:
“About seven years ago, not too long before our daughter was born, Jane Austen became my only author. I began to read her before sleep every night, and when I woke in the night; I read her at my desk when I couldn’t make progress with the biography I was supposed to have finished writing, and on the slow bus that crossed the river to the ob-gyn. I would come to the end of a scene and turn the leaves back to read it again, almost without noticing. I was not sure what to make of my condition.”
Doesnt it sound so good?!?!
You can find Austen Years here on Goodreads.
#3: All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf
Another book that, you guessed it, blends memoir, literary criticism, and biography! Behold the synopsis:
“Katharine Smyth was a student at Oxford when she first read Virginia Woolf’s modernist masterpiece To the Lighthouse in the comfort of an English sitting room, and in the companionable silence she shared with her father. After his death–a calamity that claimed her favorite person–she returned to that beloved novel as a way of wrestling with his memory and understanding her own grief. […] Braiding memoir, literary criticism, and biography, All the Lives We Ever Lived is a wholly original debut: a love letter from a daughter to her father, and from a reader to her most cherished author. “
Where What Is the Grass was about Walt Whitman and Austen Years was about Jane Austen, All the Lives We Ever Lived is about Virginia Woolf, specifically To the Lighthouse. I have to say I’m not the biggest fan of Virginia Woolf–I’ve read both To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway and didn’t love them–but like I said before, this genre isn’t about the work that the author explores so much as it is about the way that that author articulates their relationship to that work and its significance to them.
You can find All the Lives We Evere Lived here on Goodreads.
Aside from all having more or less the same phrase in their synopses–“combining memoir, literary criticism, and biography…”–all of these books have subtitles that very explicitly signal their aims. “Walt Whitman in My Life,” “A Memoir in Five Novels,” “Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf”–these are subtitles that explicitly draw a line between the author and the work that they will discuss, and I think that succinctly gets at what this genre is trying to do.
Critically, I think these titles also highlight books’ potential for growth: how they make us grow as much as we grow up alongside them, how a book is not just something static, but rather means different things to us at different times of our lives.
I already love memoirs, and I was an English major at uni so I also love literary criticism, so the blending of the two is just a win-win for me. I cannot wait to get to these books and I’m really hoping and, to some degree, expecting to love them.
I hope you guys enjoyed this post! Please let me know if you know of books that are similar to the ones I talked about here.
And also, I would love to hear about the book that you consider to be That One Book for you; the book that you love so much that you don’t even know how to begin talking about it.
As always, thank you so much for reading! I got so many interesting and thought-provoking comments on my last discussion post about Messy Women, and was so happy to see that it resonated with so many of you. I always appreciate your likes and comments, so thank you again!