You know, it’s tough to narrow down to one. All great books change me. In some way or another. That’s a great book’s job—to show a new insight, a way of seeing that you’d missed before, to cause you to think and wonder and consider possibilities on far distant shores.
Like you, I’ve had that experience since childhood, immersed in stories of Ladd A Dog, of The Black Stallion series, of Bugle: Dog of the North. Okay, so there is a pattern here! When other kids were reading Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins, et al, I lived in books with animals as the protagonists. Well, some folks would say the people in some of my favs were the heroes, but the animals always were for me.
Which continues of course to today. One of my very favorites of late is The Art of Racing in the Rain, which is told from Enzo the dog’s viewpoint. But when the going gets treacherous, I can hear his mantra: “The car goes where the eyes go.” Doesn’t that just simplify things? Leave it to a Labrador to distill wisdom down to one piece of Zen.
A children’s book I found in adulthood (actually, it was recommended to me by a teacher when I’d come to talk with her writing class) is Love That Dog. Yes, another dog narrator, but this one is about writing and life and death and, well, you get the picture. What a great book for kids. Just brilliance.
I’ve loved so many books, and they’ve made me ponder and wonder and transported me to galaxies far far away. As I bet they have for you!
But if pressed to narrow it down to one, a book that changed me as a person, a reader, and a writer, everyone who knows me could guess the answer. It’s a book that should be read by every person on the planet (the movie version doesn’t count, even though it was actually well done. Who knew!).
One day I was browsing through Taylor’s Book Store on Camp Bowie Blvd. Lord but I miss that store! It’s gone the way of most brick-and-mortar bookstores these days. Sadly. I had one of my first and wonderful book signing there with my debut novel, By the Book, and sold enough copies that the book stayed on the local best-seller list for weeks. What fun that was! (link to that page on my website)
But anyway, one day I was browsing and I saw this book with the cover facing of a river meandering below mountains, so of course, being a mountain lover, I picked it up and perused.
Right inside was a piece from the story that said in Montana, beer drinking isn’t considered drinking.
I was in.
I’d never heard of the book or the author (nor had anyone I knew back then as I gushed and gushed about the book later—truly five people on the planet had read it). But that never gives me pause. Many of the great books I’ve read no one had heard of at the time.
A slim novella, I finished it the night I got back to the farm (where I spent some of the happiest years of my life, poor to the bone but writing and reading and building fence and tending cows to put food on the table. As Campbell would say, I had found my bliss).
The sweet story devastated me. I plugged in so closely to the family tragic loss, ours having suffered a similar one. I’ve read the book oh-so-many times, and I still joke that when I really want to break my heart, I read it again.
But it was the intense living of life that got me. The prose, which I aspire to ‘til this day, and most likely always will. The immense emotion evoked through such spare writing. The boiling down to its essence what this life and family is all about.
I’m still, obviously and to this day, not good at explaining why this book changed me so. But one day, my main goal in this life—from then until now—is to write something so beautiful before I die. Although I had begun penning fiction long before finding this story, this is why I write.
Almost all of it still filters through me often, and as I type this my eyes are filled with the words. Perhaps my favorite passage in all of literature goes like this:
“Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
“I am haunted by waters.” —
A River Runs Through It, by Norma Maclean
Award-winning writer and editor Susan Mary Malone is the author of the novels, "I Just Came Here to Dance" and "By the Book," as well as four co-authored nonfiction books, including "What’s Wrong with My Family?" and many published short stories. Forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to traditional publishers.