This week’s blog hop from Crazy-for-Books asks the following question: “What book influenced or changed your life? How did it influence/change you?” You can participate in the blog hop by clicking on the button above and going to Crazy-for-Books.
Okay, this is going to seem like a weird combination, but I would pick two books: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell and The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I’d be hard pressed to think of two books that would be more unlikely to be paired together, but let me explain.
I read Gone With the Wind before I saw the movie, and Scarlett O’Hara, for a young woman still unacquainted with feminism, was a powerful female character. I loved her strength and her relentless pursuit of what she wanted. But the theme in the novel that really struck me was the importance of place. If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ll remember that a refrain that keeps coming back to Scarlett is her father telling her, “It will come to you, this love of the land. There’s no gettin’ away from it if you’re Irish.” I am not Irish, but something about the idea of loving a place, of feeling deeply connected to the land, struck home with me. I realized, “Yes, I deeply love this place,” meaning my particular home and the community in which I lived in Kentucky. The importance of place and community are something that have influenced me throughout my life as I choose where to live (a small town) and what to study (community and urban sociology) and how to interact with the world around me (my environmentalism, love of gardening and nature, and interest in farming). I find it hard to understand people who don’t feel very powerfully about places and communities. I don’t think that love came from Gone With the Wind, but it was the first book that kind of gave a name to that feeling and focused it for me.
Gone With the Wind also helped propel me to go to college in Jackson, Mississippi. I will confess there was an odd connection between my love for the book and my decision to go to school in the deep South, as misguided as that connection might have been (I didn’t expect women to be in antebellum costume, exactly, but I thought maybe there were some Scarlett-type women wandering around). Now, Mississippi in the 1990s was in many ways nothing like the antebellum South, and in other ways, disturbingly like the antebellum South. But going to school in Mississippi has been one of the most formative and important experiences in my life, and so that Gone With the Wind pushed me towards it makes it one of the most influential books I’ve ever read.
One of the things I discovered once I was in Mississippi was that though great battles for racial equality had certainly been fought in the United States, the war had by no means been conclusively won. Racism is not unique to the deep South, but it goes less disguised than it does in other parts of the country, and so living in Mississippi made it easier to see the ways in which race has fundamentally shaped our national identity and continues to do so today. Living in Mississippi led me to an exploration of the role of race in our history and our lives and to James Baldwin, who understood more about our country than any other author I have read. So in Mississippi, I read The Fire Next Time, Baldwin’s essay on race in America. Over the years, reading that essay has helped me understand so many things about our national character and the way our racial legacy has shaped the way all of us live and think as citizens. Reading The Fire Next Time and thinking about race led me into sociology as a major, and the career I currently occupy. Without these two books, I don’t know if I would be who I am today, and that seems pretty influential.