"Reading Woman" by Mignon Khargie
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The books that changed our lives

Michael Chabon:
The Swimmer by John Cheever

Jeffrey Eugenides:
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Mary Gaitskill:
The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

Dwight Garner:
On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Denis Johnson:
Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Cynthia Joyce:
Mating by Norman Rush

Gary Kamiya:
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Mignon Khargie:
Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

John Le Carré:
Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

Laura Miller:
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

Joyce Millman:
Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

Joyce Carol Oates:
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Reynolds Price:
A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone

Andrew Ross:
The Castle by Franz Kafka

Scott Rosenberg:
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Ian Shoales:
The Circus of Dr. Lao by Charles Finney

Joan Smith:
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Amy Tan:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Mary Elizabeth Williams:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Cintra Wilson:
Prayer for Owen Meaney by John Irving

By Laura Miller

reading is a simultaneously glorified and neglected art. People think of it as something they "ought" to do, in order to consider themselves intelligent and cultured. Adults push reading on children as if it were a character-elevating and health-fostering duty, like exercise or prayer. And perhaps it is, but that's beside the point.

The essays in this special issue of Salon -- written by accomplished novelists and by Salon's own staff -- remind us that reading is at heart a passionate act. Like love, it only really works when you do it for its own sake, not to impress your friends or check off another item from the requirement list of A Good Life. Reading is acutely intimate, the opening of your mind to the voice and imagination of another human being. And, being intimate, it takes us both deep inside ourselves and also beyond, out into the world, and into the hearts of men and women we had no idea were so much like ourselves.

The choices for this Personal Best issue tend to fall into two categories, what Cintra Wilson dubs "This Speaks to Me Personally" and "This Person Can Really Write His/Her Ass Off." Since we're all writers, this usually boils down to the books that made readers out of us and the books that made us want to write. Some of the titles are literary "Greats," while others are distinctly idiosyncratic selections -- like the shabby, second-hand paperback copy of "The Circus of Doctor Lao" which fell into Ian Shoales' boyhood one summer afternoon and taught him the power of the imagination. Again, like love, it's a matter of alchemy as much as anything else, the right book at the right time in our lives.

For Joyce Millman, it's Thomas Harris' brave, self-possessed heroine; for Amy Tan and Mary Elizabeth Williams it's Nabokov's literary virtuosity throwing off the shackles of conventional morality; for Mary Gaitskill it's the way Victor Hugo's melodrama speaks to the anguished divisions in the soul; for Joyce Carol Oates, it's her own inquisitive, indomitable self mirrored in Lewis Carroll's Alice; for Gary Kamiya it's the unerring "rightness" of Mark Twain's American voice; for Jeffrey Eugenides, it's the "sentimental education" he found in Henry James' "The Portrait of a Lady," and the scent of peaches. Larger meaning and the miraculous invocation of life's daily, sensual wonders are what we seek in books.

Despite the variety of titles chosen here, each of these essays takes up the same thread: the transformative pleasure of reading itself. A book can, indeed, change your life, and if this issue of Salon affects you the way it has affected me, you will soon be heading to the nearest bookshelf, seeking both fresh and familiar marvels.
September 30, 1996