I like to think of myself as an adventurous reader. A curious reader. A willing-to-give-it-a-go reader.

Truthfully, there are quite a few things that almost always trigger a “No, thanks,” from me. Almost always, that is. This Saturday, I bring you a few of those books I still don’t know why I read. But I’m so glad I did.

 

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The descriptor ripped-from-the-headlines is a major stop sign for me. I can’t even watch Law and Order. I appreciate the headlines and the stories behind them (mostly via NPR). I love utterly fantastic, creative storytelling. I don’t like any mixing of the two.

In my view, the truth is generally more incredible than fantasy. Also, excellent fantasy is generally more truthful than reality.

Here’s the exception: Room: A Novel by Emma Donoghue. Actually, this book also defies another of my stop signs: never read a book in which terrible things happen to a child.

I wish I could remember why I ever picked up this book, but, heavens, am I glad I did. This is the story of a little boy who has never known anything but a single, small room. He is the child of a young woman who was kidnapped and is being held prisoner in a backyard shed.

I know I’ve already lost a few of you, but I hope you’ll stick with me. Truly, this is one of the most incredible novels I have ever read.

Because Donoghue tells her story from the little boy’s perspective, our overwhelming impression is one of wonder, never horror. The skill with which this child and his world are depicted simply boggles my mind. In fact, writing this, I am itching to read this one again. Just so I can figure out how she did it. Because what she has done is amazing.

This is a beautiful story. It will leave you in awe of the power of a mother’s love. It has an exciting, page-turning plot (will these two incredible people escape their imprisonment??). Finally, it has an emotionally satisfying ending.

Room breaks all my rules and does it beautifully.

Stories are a different kind of true. – Emma Donoghue in Room

Another of my rules? I don’t do literary adaptations. The sequal to Peter Pan? An update on Hamlet? Noooo! They can never equal the original, and they strike me as creatively lazy. Derivative. Come up with your own characters, why don’t you!

But, then I read The Flight of Gemma Hardy: A Novel (P.S.) by Margot Livesey. You could call this a retelling of Jane Eyre. Like me, you are probably thinking, “Why not just read Jane Eyre?” And, yes, if you haven’t, you should.

But thanks to Livesey, I think I now see the point of retellings, adaptations, and imaginative sequals and prequals. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It creates echoes and other artists, in other places and other times, respond to those echoes. It is as if The Flight of Gemma Hardy is in conversation with Jane Eyre. It helps us to see the old classic with new eyes, and it is, in itself, a beautiful work of art.

Running, I soon realized, was the best way to stay ahead of fear. – Margot Livesey in The Flight of Gemma Hardy

One final no-go: gimmicks. I don’t like them. Also, anything that seems needlessly disrespectful towards the things I hold most dear. So, why I ever read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible by A. J. Jacobs is beyond me.

First, this book is hilarious and slightly gimmicky, but it is written with earnestness and humility. Jacobs really does want to understand the Bible and the many ways people profess to live it out, and he shares his growing wisdom with us.

In the end, this memoir is funny but it’s no joke. With curiosity and empathy, Jacobs encounters Biblical literalists from the Amish in Pennsylvania to Samaritans in Israel all while trying (and failing) to live the Bible as literally as possible. At the end of his experiment, Jacobs is humbler and wiser.

And so are we.

I’m still agnostic. But in the words of Elton Richards, I’m now a reverent agnostic. Which isn’t an oxymoron, I swear. I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness. Life is sacred. The Sabbath can be a sacred day. Prayer can be a sacred ritual. There is something transcendent, beyond the everyday. It’s possible that humans created this sacredness ourselves, but that doesn’t take away from its power or importance. – A. J. Jacobs in The Year of Living Biblically

Find previous book recommendations here: week one, week two, week three, week four, week five, and week six.

 

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