A few evenings ago at a lovely dinner party during one of those conversations that move easily from topic to topic (errant fire alarms to parking fines) and place to place (an ATM in Burma to a burly motorcycle officer in Germany), my friend Susan talked about David Brooks’s lecture at the Chautaugua Institute she attended in July. When Brooks asked his students at Yale University about the last time they read a book that changed their lives, they stared at him.
“You’ve got to understand that we don’t really read that way,” they told him. “We read to get through the class, but the deep, penetrative reading, we just don’t have time for.”
This made me think: Could I do that? Could I name one book that changed my life? My first challenge was trying to remember all the important books I’ve read over the years. But then it hit me: if a book changed my life, how could I ever forget it?
Miss Caine Reads Les Miserables to Our Seventh Grade Class (April 1955)
There you are, Miss Caine,
the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.
Your dark hair curls almost to your shoulders
and springs up around your face in tendrils
that your long fingers can never tame.
Your pencil skirt pulls across your hips
and a white blouse with a small collar
reveals your long neck. You wear
nylons and black pumps and sit with legs crossed
on your desk. The book is in your lap.
After lunch, we enter your classroom
all sweaty from running around the playground.
Some of us have begun to pair up.
I’m in love with Robert Owens.
My friend Donna Kirby isn’t sure,
but she thinks that James likes her.
Our first dance is in a few weeks.
My mother is making me a pink taffeta dress
with a layer of net over the full skirt.
Last night I turned as Mother measured
and marked the hem with her chalk.
But today as we return from lunch
still smelling like wax paper and milk cartons,
you open the big book and start to read.
We settle into our wooden desks.
Some cross their arms and
lower shoulders onto desk tops.
Miss Caine doesn’t seem to mind.
She is caught up in the lives
of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette.
French street fighting explodes around our heads
and we know the meaning of the eternal chase
and we know what it means to be an orphan
even though we are as secure as we will ever be.
The bell will ring in three hours.
I will walk home and have peanut butter crackers
and half a small Coke with my mother
as we watch Edge of Night.
But for now, Miss Caine reads
Les Miserables and we will
never be quite the same again.
–Vicky Lettmann (8/19/13)
Writing Jumpstart: A Book That Changed Your Life. Go for ten minutes.
I enjoy reading your jumpstart writings. So send me one of yours. Please limit to 500 words. (See contact page.) I plan to publish a few on the site. Thanks!