the books that mattered

I’ve always been a reader.

Back when I was in elementary school and middle school and high school, it wouldn’t be surprising to find me, night after night, curled up under my covers with a flashlight, reading for hours past my bedtime. Holes. Angelina Ballerina. Mercer Mayer. The Fearless series. Harry Potter. Shel Silverstein. Ender’s Game. Star Wars Young Jedi Knights, Lurlene McDaniel. Anything. Everything. I read it all.

I read fiction then and I read fiction now, I think, because books allow me to escape in a unique and special way: when I read, I get to enter a person’s mind — a superpower I’ll never get in real life. And you might say that in fiction, those people whose minds I’m in are fake…and you’d be right, of course. But when I’m reading, they don’t feel fake. They feel immensely real. Their thoughts, their actions, their presence, their existence — it all opens up parts of my mind and my body and my heart that nothing else really does. Books and their characters envelop me and hold me close. It’s a gorgeous feeling.

Non-fiction has its place in my life too. I’d say my first foray into non-fiction was with A Child Called It and Chicken Soul for the (fill-in-the-blank) Soul. These were books that opened my eyes to new viewpoints of the world. Since then the non-fiction books that have stuck with me have done the same — taken rags to the windows in my world, wiped them clean, and allowed me to see in entirely new ways. They’ve opened doors, changed my perspectives, filled me with facts that have altered the way I interact with others and with myself.

Over the last 29 years, I’ve read a number of extraordinary books. But only a few have shifted me in ways I never would have expected — shifted me to make huge life choices, or to feel better and more confident in the choices I had made, in who I was, or that helped me get to where I am today.

Below, for me as much as for you, is a list of those books.

The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand

“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

–The Fountainhead

I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged when I was 21. It was the summer between my junior and senior year in college and I was working as an intern in the estimating office of a national construction company, Kiewit Building Group.

I was a little lost. I had gone into the University of Colorado at Boulder as an aerospace engineering major, intent on being apart of the commercial space industry that would send countless people into space in my lifetime (an industry that’s been in the news a lot lately for its incredible advances).

But soon after arriving at college, the idea of commercial space travel lost its luster. It’s not that I didn’t think it was cool — I did. It just felt very big, and it felt like the role I would play in it would be very small. Like I would be a cog in the wheel that turned the ride. I didn’t want to be the cog. I wanted to be the tide. It didn’t help that aerospace engineers at CU had quite a stereotype (Yep, even within engineering school, the different sub-specialties had their stereotypes.) for not having lives, for being quite a bit elitist, for being too specialized, and for having tough, tough classes. So, six months in, I switched into mechanical engineering. It was a more broad choice, but one that kept aerospace engineering in scope if I ever decided to go for it.

Nevertheless, by the end of junior year, I felt like I’d made a mistake. I did like my classes for the knowledge. There was something very awesome about being able to mathematically figure out how fluids would (ideally) react when faced with friction. It was very cool to be able to use a computer program to determine the answer to a logic problem. It was kinda mindbending to understand how, at the molecular level, materials in the world works. But there were a ton of things I didn’t like, most of which revolved around my peers. While I really enjoyed some of them, there was something crushing about being in a classroom of over 120 people, 110 of which were 20-year-old males. It didn’t help that a year before, my boyfriend and I (he was an ME as well) had broken up, and all my ME “friends” went to him. Some of the students were homophobic, sexist and racist, and it didn’t seem like anyone stood up to them when they were.

Moreover, I still had no idea what I wanted to DO. What did mechanical engineers do that sounded interesting to me? I’d been an intern for Kiewit on a construction site, and that was fun, but mostly because me and the people I worked for got along really well. And then I’d done some research in the ME department, which was okay, but kind of boring. And now I was working as an estimating intern at the same company, which meant I was calculating how much drywall and windows and flooring buildings were going to require to build to figure out how much a building would cost to build. At career fairs, places like Lockheed Martin looked interesting, but I didn’t want to work on things that would be used in war, since I was split on whether I felt moral or ethical about that. Same went for energy companies. And local engineering companies. Meanwhile, the bottom was falling out of the economy. It was 2008, and those jobs that engineers usually find so easy to get — they were drying up. It wasn’t a given that there would be a job offer, and I was going to have to work hard to get one. For a job I didn’t even know if I wanted.

Then along came Ayn Rand. I know now that she has a reputation for being, well, kind of a dick, but at the time, I didn’t. I knew nothing about her. I only knew that on my bookshelf was a book that I’d had there for several years and never picked up: The Fountainhead. I’d tried reading the first page a million times but one night, it stuck, and I didn’t stop reading for days until I’d devoured it. Next was Atlas Shrugged. I read it at my desk when no one was watching. I read it in the car on my lunch break, which always seemed to go long. I read it laying in bed at night even though I knew it meant I’d be exhausted the next day.

I don’t agree with almost any of her Ayn Rand’s philosophy or world view. Which is strange, because those books, at that moment in my life, they fed my soul. I drank them in like they were the like liquid courage I’d always needed. The book sunk into my skin, it become a part of me, it permeated everything and seemed so, completely and utterly, relevant. Those books were all about people trusting themselves, trusting their gut, doing what they believed was right, and following through, no matter the consequences, no matter who tried to stop them. They were about following in no one’s footsteps, forging your own path, and being strong.

At 21, when I was questioning everything, those books sparked in me the certainty that I could do anything. It was the nod and the okay I was desperately looking for that whatever choice I made would be the right one. That what mattered —  the only thing that mattered — was what I wanted, what I believed in, what I loved, what I needed. Those books helped me realize that I needed to stop fearing what might happen, stop feeling like I had to do something just because it would be easy, or expected or the obvious next step, and just do what I felt was right.

Following that book, I made the decision that, most likely, I didn’t want to do engineering. I started rock climbing more. I started to learn to slackline. I learned to skydive. It was the start of a whole era of my life that led to me finding two sports that I continue to care deeply about, and, of course, to me meeting Joe and moving to Boston to follow love and chase my new dream of being a writer and a journalist. It all started with those books.

“Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it’s yours.”

–Atlas Shrugged


Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Excerpt from the introduction:

Feeding my child is not like feeding myself: it matters more. It matters because food matters (his physical health matters, the pleasure of eating matters), and because the stories that are served with our food matter. These stories bind our family together, and bind our family to others. Stories about food are stories about us — our history and our values. Within my family’s Jewish tradition, I came to learn that food serves two parallel purposes: it nourishes and it helps you remember. Eating and storytelling are inseparable — the saltwater is also the tears; the honey not only tastes sweet, but makes us think of sweetness; the matzo is the bread of our affliction.

There are thousands of foods on the planet, and explaining why we eat the relatively small selection we do requires some words. We need to explain that the parsley on the plate is for decoration, that pasta is not a “breakfast food,” why we eat wings but not eyes, cows but not dogs. Stories establish narratives, and stories establish rules.

At many times in my life, I have forgotten that I have stories to tell about food. I just ate what was available or tasty, what seemed natural, sensible, or healthy — what was there to explain? But the kind of parenthood I always imagined practicing abhors such forgetfulness.

This story didn’t begin as a book. I simply what to know — for myself and for my family — what meat is. I wanted to know as completely as possible. Where does it come from? How is it produced? How are animals treated, and to what extent does that matter? What are the economic, social and environmental effects of eating animals? My personal quest didn’t stay that way for long. Through my efforts as a parent, I came face-to-face realities that as a citizen I couldn’t ignore, and as a writer I couldn’t keep to myself…

…[E]ating animals is one of those topics, like abortion, where it is impossible to definitively know some of the most important details (When is a fetus a person, as opposed to a potential person? What is animal experience really like?) and that cuts right to one’s deepest discomforts, often provoking defensiveness or aggressions. It’s a slippery, frustrating, and resonant subject. Each questions prompts another, and it’s easy to find yourself defending a position far more extreme than you actually believe in or could live by. Or worse, finding no position worth defending or living by.

Then there is the difficulty of discerning the difference between how something feels and what something is. Too often, arguments about eating animals aren’t arguments at all, but statements of taste. And where there are facts–this is how much pork we eat; these are how many mangrove swamps have been destroyed by aquaculture; this is how a cow is killed–there’s the question of what we can actually do with them. Should they be ethically compelling? Communally? Legally? Or just more information for each eater to digest as he sees fit?

While this book is the product of an enormous amount of research, and is as objective as any work of journalism can be — I used the most conservative statistics available (almost always from government, and peer-reviewed academic and industry sources) and hired two outside fact-checkers to corroborate them–I think of it as a story. There’s plenty of data to be found, but it is often thin and malleable. Facts are important, but they don’t, on their own, provide meaning–especially when they are so bound to linguistic choices. What does a precisely measured pain response in chickens mean? Does it mean pain? What does pain mean? No matter how much we learn about the physiology of pain–how long it persists, the symptoms it produces, and so forth–none of it will tell us anything definitive. But place facts in a story, a story of compassion or domination, or maybe both–place them in a story about the world we live in and who we are and who we want to be–and you can begin to speak meaningfully about eating animals.

I can’t remember what visit it was to Joe’s family’s place in Pittsburgh, but I do know it was early on in our relationship and that I was excited because I was having my first long, in-depth conversation with Joe’s dad. It happened to be about vegetarianism and veganism. Joe’s dad had recently gone vegan, and that fact had a lot to do with a book he’d just read, Eating Animals.

Vegetarianism hadn’t been a big part of my growing up. In high school, I’d gone vegetarian for a few months on a diet. In college, I went vegetarian in the hopes of saving some money. Neither episodes really stuck.

But I’d been considering vegetarianism again when Joe’s dad and I started talking. I’d watched a video on Facebook about the sexing of baby chicks for egg production and had stopped eating eggs (to my and Joe’s chagrin — it was one of our favorite ingredients!)  So when I talked to Joe’s dad and listened to a summary of this book, I was open to it.

I read it once, right when we got home from the trip. I read it again a year later. The first time I finished it, I went vegetarian. The second time, vegan.

Before reading Eating Animals, it was a burden to try to not eat meat, to avoid eggs, to find compassionately created food. How annoying, how difficult, how time-consuming! How unnecessary! Yet after reading this book, doing these things felt like relief, like it was easy, like it was the least I could do.

The book follows the animals we eat — cows, pigs, chickens, turkey’s, fish, shellfish — from birth to death. It looks at how our demand for meat, at every meal, all the time, has transformed the industry. It looks at how prevalent the issues are and about what checks and balance are — or, more commonly, aren’t in place to help protect the animals, the earth, and us.

It’s impossible to calculate the impact that this book had on my heart and mind. This book — poetic, painful, devastating and inspirational — it shifted something inside me. I had always been sensitive to others: empathetic, sympathetic, maybe a good listener. This book tuned me in to a whole world I knew nothing about, and once I did know of, couldn’t justify being a part of.

I used to be pretty militant about veganism. I’m still rather militant about my own veganism (though when I travel, I do often eat eggs), but I no longer believe that my way is the only way. I believe there are lots of reasons that people eat what they do, and I think a lot of people view the world and animals through a different lens than me.

I also think that a lot of people don’t know how exactly animals do arrive on their plate, and what the invisible cost is to us and our earth to have them there. For that reason, and for those people, I can up with a plan to, at least, educate. After reading Eating Animals about 6 years ago, I have kept on hand a supply of them (five currently sit on my bookshelf) and i give them away, for free, to anyone who expresses any interest. My goal is to give people knowledge so that they can make informed choices about what they eat, whatever those choices are.

And hey, if they decided to go vegan, or vegetarian, or eat meat one less meal a week, or pick the better quality meat at the store because of it, well, then, that’s great too.

P.S. If you want a free copy of Eating Animals, let me know. I’ll give and/or mail it to you. The exchange/payment is that you read it and, if you want to, you pass it on.

About chickens (warning: graphic)

…Next the birds are inspected by a USDA official, whose ostensible function is to keep the consumer safe. The inspector has approximately two seconds to examine each bird inside and out, both the carcass and the organs, for more than a dozen different diseases and suspect abnormalities. He or she looks at about 25,000 birds a day. Journalist Scott Bronstein wrote a remarkable series for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about poultry inspection, which should be required reading for anyone considering eating chicken. He conducted interviews with nearly a hundred USDA poultry inspectors from thirty-seven plants. “Every week,” he reports, “millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.”

Next the chickens go to a massive refrigerated tank of water, where thousands of birds are communally cooled. Tom Devine, from the Government Accountability Project, has said that “water in these tanks has been aptly named ‘fecal soup’ for all the filter and bacteria floating around. By immersing clean, healthy birds in the same tank with dirty ones, you’re practically assuring cross-contamination.”

While a significant number of European and Canadian poultry processors employ air-chilling systems, 99 percent of US poultry producers have stayed with water-immersion systems and fought lawsuits from both consumers and the beef industry to continue the outmoded use of water-chilling. It’s not hard to figure out why. Air-chilling reduces the weight of a bird’s carcass, but water-chilling causes a dead bird to soap up water (the same water known as “fecal soup”). One study has shown that simply placing check carcasses in seal plastic bags during the chilling stage would eliminate cross contamination. But the would also eliminate and opportunity for the industry to turn water into tens of millions of dollars worth of additional weight in poultry products.

Not too long ago there was an 8 percent limit set by the USDA on just how much absorbed liquid one could sell consumers at chicken meat prices before the government took action. Then this became public knowledge in the 1990s, there was an understandable outcry. Consumers sued over the practice, which sounded to them not only repulsive, but like adulteration. The courts threw out the 8 percent rule as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Ironically, though, the USDA’s interpretation of the court ruling allowed the chicken industry to do its own research to evaluate what percentage of chicken meat should be composed of the fouled, chlorinated water. (This is an all-to-familiar outcome when challenging the agribusiness industry. After industry consultation, the new law of the land allows slightly more than 11 percent liquid absorption (the exact percentage is indicated in small print on packaging–have a look next time). As soon as the public’s attention move elsewhere, the poultry industry turned regulations meant to protect consumers to its own advantage.

US poultry consumers now gift massive poultry producers millions of additional dollars every year as a result of this added liquid. The USDA knows this and defends the practice — after all, the poultry processors are,a s so many factory farmers like to say, simply doing their best to “feed the world.”

…The vastness of the poultry industry means that if there is anything wrong with the system, there is something terribly wrong in our world…All told, there are fifty billion (and country) factory-farmed birds worldwide…Fifty billions. Every year, fifty billion birds are made to live and die like this.

It cannot be overstated how revolutionary and relatively new this reality is–the number of factory-farmed birds was zero before Celia Steele’s 1923 experiment. And we’re not just raising chickens differently; we’re eating more chickens: Americans eat 150 times as many chickens as we did only eighty years ago.

 


The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson

Gram raises her hands to her face in distress, and I go back to scribbling a poem in the margin of Wuthering Heights.I’m huddled into a corner of the couch. I’ve no use for talking, would just as soon store paper clips in my mouth.

“But the plant’s always recovered before, Big, like when Lennie broke her arm, for instance.”

“That time the leaves had white spots.”

“Or just last fall when she auditioned for lead clarinet but had to be second chair again.

“Brown spots”

“Or when–”

“This time it’s different.”

I glance up. They’re still peering at me, a tall duet of sorrow and concern.

Gram is Clover’s Garden Guru. She has the most extraordinary flower garden in Northern California. Her roses burst with more color than a year of sunsets, and their fragrance is so intoxicating that town lore claims breathing in their scent can cause you to fall in love on the spot. But despite her nurturing and renowned green thumb, this plant seems to follow the trajectory of my life, independent of her efforts or its own vegetal sensibility.

I put my book and pen down on the table. Gram leans in close to the plant, whispers to it about the importance of joie de vivre, then lumbers over to the couch, sitting down next to me. Then Big joins us, plopping his enormous frame down beside Gram.

We three, each with the same unruly hair that sits on our heads like a bustle of shiny black crows, stay like this, staring at nothing, for the rest of the afternoon.

This is us since my sister Bailey collapsed one most ago from a fatal arrhythmia while in rehearsal for a local production of Romeo & Juliet. It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way.

This book was a little more subtle in its effect on me. I read it in Scotland last year while traveling around the country. I read a LOT of books on that trip (20!), which I did solo, but The Sky is Everywhere was so unbelievably, incredibly poetic and beautiful and raw that I think I could read it a 100 times and not be tired of it. I’ve already read it four times in not even a year and each time, I’m blown away.

There are books I’ve read where the characters just come alive, become a part of me and my mind and my life. But this book so so so far surpasses that. This book not only became a part of my life because of the characters, but the writing in it, my god, the writing in it is so epic and beautiful and perfect and unrestrained and deep, it embedded in me in a way that no book ever really has. The depth of feeling it is able to convey is astounding. It made me fall in love over and over and over again with reading and young adult books and the art and craft of writing.

At the time, I’d been struggling with the “right” way to write. How do I get my point across? How much do I give away? How should my characters talk to each other? To themselves? What kind of things mattered? What topic was “worth” writing about?

Nelson’s book helped me shift fully into the realm of writing Young Adult stories and helped me feel more comfortable with my voice. I’ve always found something powerful in young adult stories. Maybe it’s because my own young adult experience was so raw. Maybe it’s because kids are more open with their feelings and actions and thoughts. Everything they feel is the first time they’ve felt it and so they feel it deeper, rawer, than an adult’s does. Though this isn’t always true, adult fiction is often more composed, whereas young adult writing at least seems like it can have a little more latitude for grandeur.

Nelson’s writing defies a good descriptor. It’s like a tornado, a hurricane of thought, all whipped into a frenzy and poured into your soul like hot soup. The book flies, the characters flipping from scene to scene and moment to moment with an immediacy that makes you catch your breath.

The scenery is beautiful, the people complex and heartbroken and joyful and real. Everything about her book feels raw and perfect, and it inspired me to stay true to my form of writing, and my voice and my ideas and to trust that there isn’t a “right” way to write, there’s only your way of writing, and your way of getting the truth across. And when I participated in NaNoWrimo a few months later, I wrote with Nelson as my guide.

“Have you seen him yet?”

I have seen him, because when I return to my band seat, the one I’ve occupied for the last year, he’s in it. Even in the stun of grief, my eyes roam from the black boots, up the miles of legs covered in denim, over the endless torso, and finally settle on a face so animated I wonder if I’ve interrupted a conversation between him and my music stand.

“Hi” he says, and jumps up. He’s treetop tall. “You must be Lennon.” He points to my name on the chair. “I heard about–I’m sorry.” I notice the way he holds his clarinet, not precious with it, tight fist around the neck, like a sword.

“Thank you,” I say, and every available inch of his face bursts into a smile–whoa. Has he blown into our school on a gust of wind from another world? The guy looks unabashedly jack-o’-lantern happy, which couldn’t be more foreign to the sullen demeanor most of us strove to perfect. He has scores of messy brown curls that flop every which way and eyelashes so spider-leg long and thick that when he blinks he looks like he’s batting his bright green eyes right at you. His face is more open than an open book, like a wall of graffiti really. I realize I’m writing wow on my thigh with my finger, decide I better open my mouth and snap us out of this impromptu staring contest.

“Everyone calls me Lennie,” I say. Not very original, but better than guh, which was the alternative, and it does the trick. He looks down at his feet for a second and I take a breath and regroup for Round Two.


So that’s them! the books, the few, that shifted me, made me the me I am today. Which books have affected you?


P.S.Because i couldnt help myself, here’s a list of books that didn’t particularly cause a shift in me, but did create an immense feeling of wonder  in me when I was reading them. Read them! :)

  • The Ender’s Game series, especially Speaker for the Dead, which was so incredibly touching and deep, and taught me that science fiction and philosophy are not mutually exclusive. of all the books I’ve read, the characters in this series are some of the most complex, developed and beautiful of them all. If you read one book in your life (OK, two, because you should absolutely start with the stunning masterpiece that is Ender’s Game, the first book in the series) let it be this one. It is unreal in its perfection.
  • Eleanor & Park: Rainbow Rowell is the master of creating characters so real, so perfect, so authentic that you just know that they were based on you, or your friends, or the people you god-damn wish had been your friends. The sentimentality, the maturity in her books, and especially this one, are spot on and genuine. You don’t feel because she tries to make you. You feel because this book is perfect, from start to finish, in every way. These characters will crawl under your skin and become a part of you and you’ll never, ever, want to let them go.
  • The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough: It doesn’t sound like a super fun book, does it? But, my god, it is. I read it because I was reviewing it for the Christian Science Monitor. It was the beginning of Joe and I’s relationship and we were struggling. We were babies, looking back, focusing on only ourselves and unsure of how to have an honest, healthy relationship with each other. This book helped me learn how to enjoy the amazing things about my partner and not wallow about all the ways we weren’t perfect. Lots of people know that stuff in this book already, and lots don’t. I recommend it to all of you, just in case :).

 

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