I initially read many of my all-time favorite books—including Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison; The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger; and The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon—in the spring of 1994, my junior year of high school. Through these stories, I became aware for the first time that novels were not cold, dead things. Great books were being written by regular, everyday people who, like, went on book tours and stuff (although not usually to my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama).
These stories literally changed my life. I found existence as a teenager extremely claustrophobic; it felt like a movie where the only thing you ever see is your own face in extreme close-up—like Les Misérables, only with less attractive people. I devoured those books partly because they gave me perspective. They allowed me to zoom out and see a wider world. When reading Catcher, for instance, I became Holden Caulfield to a degree that nothing in movies or video games could emulate. Books are just meaningless scratches on a page until the reader translates them into a story. We make stories real by reading them, and that empowerment was very gratifying to me as a mostly powerless adolescent.
A few months ago, I was in a pitch meeting for a TV show and a network exec said, “We want this show to be lean-back entertainment—we don’t want the viewers to feel like they’re working.” But reading is precisely the opposite of “lean-back entertainment.” Readers are cocreators.
And children are particularly generous cocreators. When I read with my 3-year-old son, he always makes the stories better with his creativity and his genuine belief in magic. Even teens hold on to the feeling that stories can be transcendentally important. They are still connected to the childhood world of magic while being old enough to be interested in big ideas—what William Faulkner called the “old verities … love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.” Through books, teens grapple with the old verities, and they do so thoughtfully, unironically, and without embarrassment.
But then, of course, they get older. The novel loses its novelty. As adults, we no longer find ourselves with uninterrupted hours to read. Books lose a bit of their alchemy (as does the world). In the face of mortgage payments and potty-training our own children, fiction seems powerless to do much about our real lives. And yet if we can summon the energy to be engaged and open readers, a good book can feel like hanging out with old friends: The years melt away and we become the readers we once were. How does this happen? For me, it requires quiet and time—two rare commodities. But if I find them, a story can rip me loose from the tyranny of adulthood.
Recently I reread The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Just as it had all those years ago, the book tore me up and then stitched me back together, different and better. I am pleased to report that the magic of stories is alive and well, if we only give them the attention they deserve.
Ready to crack open a book? Real Simple readers share 50 books that made them fall in love with reading, while noted authors name the book that changed their lives.