When I turned 60, my family wanted ideas for a suitable, “Wow, you are 60” present. I had arrived at that point that I’d always heard about but didn’t believe would happen to me: I didn’t want anything material. Instead I requested that my family and friends take time to respond to four questions. Ever the researcher, I thought these questions would help me gauge the pulse of my world — a gift of both mind and heart.
One of these questions is, “What is a favorite book that resonates with you?” I like it because responses come with explanations and offer a glimpse into someone’s soul. I have since asked that question elsewhere and always find it enlightening.
For me, different books marked my age. This was also true for others. When I was distracting a friend while exercising, I threw this question her way. Her response? As a teenager, she was drawn to “As a Driven Leaf,” a book rich in Jewish philosophy, probing the struggle between tradition and modern day culture. Years later it was “Jayne Eyre,” where a strong heroine captures the imagination. That Jayne had immense strength and got the guy were particularly appealing. Her final pick (and by this time we were doing “plank” so the words were more halting and the explanation shorter) was “Harry Potter.” The scars of the Holocaust had left my friend needing to believe that good triumphs over evil, and J.K. Rowling did that well.
My friend’s response showed a trail of growth from establishing her Jewish identity, to aspiring to be a strong woman with a deep and reciprocal love, to becoming a mature woman with unflappable optimism.
My husband’s choices offer a different view — a fiction and nonfiction combination of Michael Connelly’s “Harry Bosch” series and John Stuart Mill “On Liberty.” His appreciation of Mill began in high school and extended through college as he contemplated the role of government in an individual’s life. To this day, this topic is dear to him as he engages in thoughtful political debate.
The fiction pick, Connelly’s “Bosch,” is at one level an escapist read that allows us to park our day’s stress. Bosch is a man with a great back-story — orphaned as a child, fighting as a tunnel-rat in Vietnam and eventually becoming an effective but misunderstood police detective. On another level, Bosch’s gruff virtue is a testament to noble goals, and fighting for the vulnerable among us.
My picks? I start with a tie between “Huckleberry Finn” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” having reread both many times since high school. Twain challenged society’s norms through humor, adventure and character development, and was on the right side of race relations. Huck grew and began to see his world differently over time. “To Kill a Mockingbird” offered similar sensibilities, but it was Calpurnia’s strength, and Boo Radley as the misunderstood outcast who saves the day that moved me.
For college and beyond, my uncontested pick is Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” where Gov. Willie Stark becomes a symbol of naive idealism that succumbs to political corruption. Narrator Jack Burden, also an idealist, supports team-Stark, until he becomes disillusioned by political scandals that waylay their goals. Burden feels betrayed, though he eventually reframes his world and affirms life and love. The evolution of Governor Stark is compelling, and I took heed in the danger of ambition run amok.
My last pick affirms a growing maturity of seeing beneath life’s surface. Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kittridge” features a crusty New Englander who gives the reader many reasons to dislike her. Through Strout’s short stories, Olive is alternately the mother-in-law from hell, and the stranger who takes on a young woman’s eating disorder with unwavering commitment. All book long, she evolves. In the final scene, we see Olive as a widow opening herself up to a man who shares none of her sensibilities. I loved her complexity and growth as she too begins to see beneath the surface.
What do my picks say? In my youth, color blindness was top of mind, followed by how to become a change agent. At 60, life has had a humbling effect on me, and I seek more understanding before I judge. And omnipresent in this picture, is the importance of love to heal all.
What do your picks say about you?