Life-changing books endure as gifts to ourselves and others
When you work at your hometown newspaper, you will write obituaries for your family and friends. It is an honor to do this last service, to shape the just-right story of people’s lives into a shared memory.
Techniques for writing obituaries are the same as with any story:
■ Get the details down. Make sure dates are right, names are spelled correctly and proper nouns are accurate.
■ Put items in a logical order.
■ Use transitions if you change time, setting or character.
■ Only include elements that are necessary to the plot (Chekhov’s gun).
■ Aim for specific over general detail.
And so it was that I approached an obituary for my much-beloved Uncle Alden.
But how do you tell a cohesive story about a hippie/cowboy/biker? He was curious about the world, a freewheeling philosopher.
I still remember in junior high when Uncle Alden pressed into my hands a copy of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and told me I needed to read it.
It was that kind of book — a book that would change your life. He read it aloud to his daughters when they were young. The novella’s message of forging your own path was a lesson he wanted us to ingrain.
We did, and when it came time for Alden’s obituary, his daughters chose this passage:
“How much more there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there’s a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly.”
That was Uncle Alden. That was the perfect ending for his just-right story. And that was his lasting gift to all of us.
Curious what books had been life-changing for others, I asked a few people who surround themselves with books for a living.
Joe Vigil, library assistant in technology services for Mesa County Public Libraries, said Tom Robbins’ “Jitterbug Perfume” helped him navigate a new life in his early 20s following a four-year stint in the U.S. Army. He remembers thinking: “Now I’m finally free and I can find myself. It was kind of like a catalyst of rediscovery.”
Robbins weaves themes of immortality, theology and love. A decade after first discovering it, “I read that book at least once a year,” Vigil said. “In between books, if I don’t have anything to read, I’ll go back and reread my favorite parts.” He also gifts it to departing colleagues setting out on new paths of their own.
Kristen Hague was a 20-year-old vegan making her own food when she became determined to learn to bake bread. Now an associate professor of English at Colorado Mesa University, Hague remembers going to a bookstore and pulling from the shelf a small, hard cover book with the ambitious title of “Brother Juniper’s Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor” by Peter Reinhart.
“It’s very literary,” Hague said of her attraction. The price, though, $20, was steep at for her at that stage in her life. “I remember hemming and hawing,” Hague said, but finally concluding it was worth the investment for a lifetime of use.
Now, margins scribbled with faded notes and phone numbers, and dough stains plopped on favorite recipes, the book is still in use, and Hague has followed Reinhart throughout his continued career, with “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” “American Pie,” “Crust and Crumb” and more.
Though she loves cooking of all sorts, bread baking, with all its chemistry and delayed gratification, is a favorite, Hague said, adding she found in Reinhart a kindred spirit with a shared philosophy of “taking your time and being mindful when you bake.”
Rebecca M. Hale in 1997 had taken the California bar and had a few precious weeks to travel before starting a job as a patent attorney in Washington, D.C.
Hale studied books and films about her vacation destination — Vietnam — but nothing on page or film could prepare her for the experience of walking the same streets of Saigon where her career U.S. Air Force father served in the war 30 years prior.
It was there she purchased a bootlegged, photocopied version of “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene.
“I’m reading the book that was set in that location — it was almost more descriptive than being there,” Hale said. “It was a book that really took you to the location. And it was at that point that part of me knew that I really wanted to be a writer, but I was $100,000 in debt” from law school.
Ten years later, she finally followed that writing calling. Hale lives in Fruita and is the author of several novels, including cat mystery “How to Moon a Cat,” a New York Times best seller.
True to her love of an exotic setting in fiction, she also is writing a series of books set in the Caribbean islands. The second, “Afoot on St. Croix,” was released this month. A third she is finishing writing now.
What book changed your life? Email me at the address below and I’ll share your stories in a future column.