What is the one book that you re-read? Or the book that made such an impression on you — at whatever age — that you return to it again and again? Let’s leave the discussion of religious texts for another time. I’m talking about a novel or a memoir that was the book that opened your mind to a different way of thinking. The one that had characters or people that you identified with in a way you had never done before.
Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Cunningham described such a book in a talk I heard several years ago and again in a PBS interview, this way, “I suspect any serious reader has a first great book, just the way anybody has a first kiss.” For him, the book was Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
For me, that book was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I was a reader before I picked up this book. I no longer remember just how old I was when I read it. But I have returned to this book time and again. This was the first book where I thought, “I’m not crazy. There is someone else in the world who thinks like I do.”
Much later in life, I began to learn how difficult it is to craft any kind of story, much less a story that resonates with so many people. And there have been other books since A Wrinkle in Time that have affected me and helped me develop as both a person and as a writer. The Hobbit, A Tale of Two Cities, Dune and The World According to Garp come to mind.
As a young reader, I delved into anything that interested me. The nice ladies at the public library never censored what I read, neither did my mother. I read everything from those simplified biographies of famous historical figures (didn’t they have blue covers?) to books that were mostly read by boys — adventure stories and the like.
I read mysteries at an early age, starting with The Boxcar Children and The Bobbsey Twins, then I progressed to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys — and most important for me, Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes’ attention to detail fascinated me. He noticed the little things and cataloged that knowledge in such a way that he built a bigger picture and solved the case that puzzled everyone else. He could be ruthless, yet he had a finely-tuned sense of justice. I devoured all fifty six short stories and four novels. When I went to England in the 1970s, I carried back a huge and weighty two-volume set of the annotated Sherlock Holmes stories because at the time it was only available in England.
But back to A Wrinkle in Time — the book came out in 1962, and I just found out the 50th anniversary of the book will be celebrated with new hardcover and paperback editions, as well as an ebook edition. I have a yellowing mass market paperback that I bought some years ago, so I might just get the hardback.
Scary things happen to the children in this book. There’s time travel. An overarching evil threatens the Murry family on a personal level as well as the planet Earth and other worlds. If I were an academic, I could probably also tell you more about the archetype of the three women (old crones?) who help Meg and her brother, Charles Wallace: Mrs Which, Mrs Who and Mrs Whatsit. But I’m not, and when I first read the book that sort of thing really didn’t matter.
I may not remember the details of the story, but I carry the feeling I got from reading it with me always.