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Women Who Have Given Me Magical Books

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Jessi Lewis

Staff Writer

Jessi Lewis has her MFA in fiction and an MA in Writing and Rhetoric. She was one of the founding editors of Cheat River Review and now works to bring her own fiction, poetry and essays to eyes each month.     Twitter: @jessiwrit

The other day, I discovered my copy of Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale, and had a flashback. This book came from Jen who somehow could read me very well when I was 18, at the hardest age for anyone to interpret me. In the last two weeks of high school, when none of us had any focus anymore, I remember ending up in Jen’s house and watching television before soccer practice. She gave me the one book that I had missed in her English class that year that she was certain I would like. I don’t remember the conversation now, but I know that I still have that copy. I never returned it (sorry, Jen). And I’ve read it four times. For me, it’s one of the most important books I’ve read in my reading and writing life so far.

It is Jen’s distant contribution that made me wonder: Who else has given or lent me books that changed my outlook?

My mother gave me Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. Though this was just one of those books passed along with a promise of a good read, it helped me process high school, the South and obsession. It made me wonder what would happen if I moved home someday (I eventually did). She also gave me The Joy Luck Club in the very same month–an invaluable book that everyone should inhale at the perfect time in their lives. The love for language in that one changed everything. Apparently Mom hit all of the right notes that month.

Now that I think about it, Mom pops up constantly in my memories of borrowing books.

Flash forward to college. A creative writing professor lent each student in our tiny class one of her books. I received A Void by Georges Perec, translated from French by Gilbert Adair. This book is entirely without the use of the letter “e”. I was bemused by this, unsure of why this one was sent my way, but it taught me something else about fiction–that it can have a similar control and awareness of form as in poetry.

And of course, I realized how difficult this one must have been to translate. No “e”? That’s wild.

Rebecca gave me a copy of fairytales– My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me It’s a collection featuring authors like Aimee Bender, Hiromi Itō, and Rabih Alameddine. At the time, I didn’t know how I felt about fairytales and transitioning them into modern issues and modern writing. But, when I read it, the stories soaked into my brain and lathered its cogs. It doesn’t matter how I felt about fairytales, because they are part of us. The Grimm Brothers and other tale-spreaders live onward in us.

I realized that, actually, I had been writing fairytales for a while.

Sara gave me Tracks by Louise Erdrich. I never gave this one back either (Sorry, Sara. It’s been roughed up too. I should buy you a new one.). It was my introduction to Erdrich’s line of work and the value of family lines through fiction. I saw how our worlds can be defined by lines of family descent. It changed my way of measuring life and myself. This one should not be taken lightly and clearly I don’t. I write about Erdrich so often for Book Riot, it’s ridiculous. She’s got a hold of me.

There are more of these–many more books that were gifted with love and left a lasting impression.

Of course, lending books is dangerous because they are unlikely to return (clearly I’m part of the problem). I think of what it means to lend a book rather than give a book. It means that the lender is sharing part of her life, her viewpoint. And the borrower will take it, soak it in, and attach the memory of that person to the book’s identity. I have touched each page and so has she.

Giving a book is something else–a promise of individuality, a promise of ownership, a promise of thought.Though not all books lead you some place new, deliver that magical spark, or let you feel closer to the first reader.It’s much harder to remember those other books that were gifted and missed the mark. Everyone has received a book at one time or another that just didn’t make the heart sing.

In the end, I doubt that the women who have lent or given me books realize how much it means now to know their power in my reading life.

This whole post makes me want to lend out books left, right and center. Which leads me to the question: Who should receive a book from you?