I read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse because Suzan-Lori Parks—the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright—told me to.
Okay, I exaggerate. Suzan-Lori Parks didn’t tell me, specifically, to read To the Lighthouse (although she did shake my hand, sign my copy of her novel, and offer some encouraging words when I told her I was studying acting, and believe me, I was walking on air for the rest of the night after that, because I am a shameless Suzan-Lori Parks fangirl). But when she lectured at my university, she mentioned that even though she had always wanted to be a writer, she had been so discouraged by her high school English teacher that she entered college as a biology major, which lasted until she read To the Lighthouse and was so incredibly blown away by it that she walked straight over to the English department and changed her major.
When she told that story, I immediately thought, “That’s it. If To the Lighthouse convinced someone as brilliant as Suzan-Lori Parks that she had to be a writer, then I need to read it.” So, the following summer, I found myself a copy at a used bookstore, and I fell in love with this strange, lush, modernist piece of literary glory. I loved To the Lighthouse on its own merits. But I also loved the experience of reading it while knowing how deeply it had affected a writer I admired, imagining which parts had spoken to her and influenced her. In reading To the Lighthouse, I got to have two reading experiences at once: my own and (my imagined version of) Suzan-Lori Parks’s.
Which is precisely why, even though I love reading books that friends recommend specifically for me, I also harbor a deep and abiding love for reading books that have been important to other people, regardless of whether or not they are books I would have chosen for myself. I love seeing a book through someone else’s eyes and understanding what it meant to them…and then comparing that to what it means to me.
And it’s taken me to some fascinating literary places.
I read Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent last summer because a good friend pressed it into my hands and said, “You haven’t read it? You need to read it. I had to stop reading it during my commute, because it would just make me sob on the bus. It made me feel so connected to other women, like I was part of this incredible sisterhood.” I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Red Tent, but while I enjoyed the story and the writing, the thing I enjoyed most of all was noticing the places that evoked womanhood-as-sisterhood and how connected that made me feel to my friend.
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is probably not a book I ever would have read if left to my own devices. But a close college friend handed me her copy and told me that it had helped her through a rough patch while she was dealing with depression and recovery from addiction. Ordinarily, I would have found Paulo Coelho’s particular brand of self-help-thinly-disguised-as-literature simplistic and grating, but when I filtered The Alchemist through my experience of my lovely, thoughtful friend and the knowledge that she found it inspiring, it became a sweet, gentle fairy-tale about one way out of the dark woods of the soul. (I do still like the Rumi poem it was based on better, though.)
I’ve had Juneteenth by Ralph Ellison on my to-read list for years, ever since one of my most brilliant acting teachers brought it to class with him one morning. He explained that several years before, he had taken it to the gym with him to read on the treadmill and ran across a passage that discussed using speech to communicate something deeper than just the words that perfectly expressed his feelings about acting. He read us the passage and then said simply, “I read that…and I fell off the treadmill.” And I knew that someday I would have to read the book that affected someone I respect that much so deeply.
There’s a difference in intimacy between sharing a favorite book with a friend because the two of you have a shared love of action-packed science fiction or lyrical prose or swashbuckling, badass queer ladies and in saying, “This book was important to me. It changed my life/shaped my thinking/perfectly captured my feelings.” Sharing the books that inspired us to make changes in our lives or that made us lose control of our feelings or our bodies is a profoundly intimate act. It’s like saying, “Here’s a piece of my soul. Please look at it.” When our listeners read that book, they reaffirm that intimacy with us, effectively saying, “You matter to me. I see you, and I want to know you better.” This shared intimacy can transform a mediocre reading experience into a good one, and a good read into a sublime one.
Have you ever loved a book because of the person you knew who loved it? Come tell me about it.
Liyana is a queer actor, aerialist, bookworm, and tea enthusiast. She lives in the Pacific Northwest and is confused by the concept of “free time.”
Please join us over on the forums to discuss this post!