‘Tis the season! If you’re like us at Blair, you’re going to spend some quality time with the people that matter most over the next several weeks. In that spirit, today we’re sharing a guest blog post from Frye Gaillard, the current writer in residence at the University of South Alabama and winner of the prestigious Clarence Cason Award for Nonfiction Writing from the University of Alabama. His latest contribution to the literary world is a volume of essays that celebrate the influence of books on his life: The Books That Mattered: A Readers Memoir (NewSouth Books, September 2012).
As a child Gaillard never cared much for fairy tales—“stories of cannibalism and mayhem in which giants and witches, tigers and wolves did their best to eat small children.” But at the age of nine, he discovered Johnny Tremain, a children’s novel of the Revolutionary War, which began a lifetime love affair with books, recounted as a reader’s tribute to the writings that enriched and altered his life. In a series of carefully crafted, often deeply personal essays, Gaillard blends memoir, history, and critical analysis to explore the works of Harper Lee, Anne Frank, James Baldwin, Robert Penn Warren, John Steinbeck, and many others. As this heartfelt reminiscence makes clear, the books that chose Frye Gaillard shaped him like an extended family.
I think everyone has their first memory with a book that mattered. I can’t remember when I started really reading, but I was definitely the kid with a book propped up around my plate during dinner. My childhood was filled with small books with old library plastic peeling from the covers, with titles like Witch Weed and Time Windows and Baby-sitters Club, until I was eight, when my mother and I read Jane Eyre together (to be fair, she did most of the reading out loud). I was so proud of myself for making it through a book that thick that I carried the sucker with me and told everyone that I read it. I can’t say that the book changed my perspective or opened my eyes wider to the world–hey, I was only eight! I didn’t find those books until I started reading post-colonial lit in college, but I don’t know if I would have ever made it that far without first conquering Jane Eyre and knowing there was something special about it. And in that respect, it’s one of the books that mattered to me.
Gaillard joins us today to share a bit more insight into the books that mattered to him and what he hopes his memoir will offer others. When you’ve finished reading, tell us which books made an impression in your life. Did Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men shake you to your core? Did Shakespeare’s Hamlet haunt you? Tell us in the comment section.
Thoughts on The Books That Mattered by Frye Gaillard
I’ve been telling people lately that writing The Books That Mattered: A Reader’s Memoir is the most pleasurable experience that I have ever had as a writer. There have been other books about other topics that I’ve been happy enough to have written. But sometimes the process of writing feels like a burden I’m eager to shed. Not so, The Books That Mattered. It’s a book I had been thinking about for a while, and when I finally sat down to write it, I surrounded myself with a group of old friends – namely, my favorite books from more than fifty years as a reader.
Reading them again, I realized that I react to them now on at least three levels. The first and most obvious consisted of the flood of memories about first encounters with Huckleberry Finn or Atticus Finch, Anne Frank, Tom Joad, or Willie Stark. I remembered the emotional impact these characters had made, and I understood again why they continued to resonate over time. Then came a rush of appreciation for the writing styles, the great gifts of language, offered to us by Richard Wright or Lillian Smith, or later, Rick Bragg and Pat Conroy.
And finally, as the project began to take on a shape, I found myself caught in the historical context, the literary back-stories that fueled my encounters with Slaughterhouse Five or The Fire Next Time. All of these were powerful reminders of how our favorite books can take us to places that, in many cases, even our imaginations have never been. As a boy of ten reading Johnny Tremain I could travel in time to revolutionary Boston, breathing salt air in the Boston Harbor as surely as if I were walking those wharves. I remember talking about this with Sena Jeter Naslund, author of the contemporary classic, Ahab’s Wife, and she told me about a summer day in Birmingham when she was a girl, reading a passage from Laura Ingalls Wilder about a howling blizzard on the prairie.
“It was over ninety degrees,” Sena said, “but these words I was reading had made me shiver. I said to myself, ‘I’d like to be able to do that someday.’”
Such is the power of great writing. All of us, of course, have our own lists, our own shelves of favorite books that have enriched or even altered our lives. In writing about my own, I don’t mean to argue that these are the twenty-five or thirty best books ever written; they are simply the ones that have meant the most to me, and I found great pleasure and deep satisfaction in this opportunity to encounter them again. My hope is that the readers of The Books That Mattered will be moved to contagious ruminations of their own.