The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all. ~Frederick Buechner

Saved By Words

Last month I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Really it should be called the Festival of Faith and Reading. For twenty years all the authors and books I’ve been introduced to have enlightened me. This winter, this LONG winter, more than ever, I was counting down the days until the festival, and my anticipation of discovery grew. And then came the familiar crossing of the grounds, in sunshine blooming with crocuses and tulips (it is Grand Rapids after all!).

More than ever my soul needed to escape into the Festival of Faith and Writing and Reading.

You see, reading saved my life.

I didn’t grow up in a bookless house, but my family didn’t have a framework for art, poetry, aesthetics. I rarely saw my parents read. My mother in her later years would pick up a romance novel and immediately drop off into a sound nap. My parents seemed to lack curiosity and at times even scorned anything outside their sphere. We certainly didn’t discuss books. We didn’t discuss.

So imagine my boundless pleasure when I discovered reading, that the scribble scrabbles on a page made sense, were words!! Suddenly I could travel, live a thousand lives, be someone and somewhere else.

I can still recall book jackets. Freddy the Pig, Barnyard Detective. Charlotte’s Web. Little House on the Prairie with the Garth Williams’ illustrations. Little Women—I can still recall a chapter illustration where Jo peers into Beth’s trunk and is overcome by grief. I remember summer break and sitting on the back porch surrounded by piles and piles of Nancy Drew mysteries, my legs dangling over the armrest of a two-seat rocker and a glass of sweetened iced tea sweating on a small stand nearby. Stories are intertwined with my life story.

I loved the Newbery shelf at the local library where I felt as if I were reaching into a crock of gold and pulling out a rainbow. I read them all beginning with Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Man. I remember falling asleep at night beneath a coverlet of books—characters swirling around me like a shadow box show. As a teenager I stayed up all night reading Here I Stay by Elizabeth Coatsworth, about a Colonial girl who chooses to live alone when all her neighbors migrate west, abandoning their small village in Maine. Reading this coming of age story I left my childhood behind and crossed over into becoming a woman bookaholic. It is the type of book seldom read these days, where the rise and denouement are all within the main character, and very little action takes place.

Instead of me reading the book—it felt like it was reading me.

In high school I fell in love with Jane Eyre, another solitary narrator, nearly crushed by the pressures of a caste-like hierarchy filled with dehumanizing adults. I also fell in love with the notion of undying love. From across shrouded heaths and misty moors, I fell asleep dreaming of Wuthering Heights and a handsome mystery man calling my name.

I read Silent Spring, Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Catcher in the Rye and was shaken to my core. I had never before read anything like them. The themes disturbed me, got under my skin, and lived in my mind for months after I’d finished them. I was constantly revisiting the characters, applying new overlays to the narratives while at the same time trying to make sense of the small planet upon which I lived. These books were pivotal, hitting me at a time in my life when anything could happen. If literature was a marker in my own personal history, then some books were milestones.

Then in college I stumbled upon the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. She was a writer from the American South, a region dominated by writers with fantastic first names such as Eudora, Harper, Walker, Shelby, and of course, Flannery. For a short time I contemplated changing my name to Mason. Flannery wrote short stories populated by misfits, self-righteous racists, tattooed Bible salesmen, and one-legged agnostics. She wrote in a style referred to as the grotesque, where only the craziest, most mixed-up people were reliable enough to tell the truth (even as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood climbed up on top of his car and declared there was no real truth). I wrote stories entirely derivative of O’Connor.

If I hadn’t had books I don’t know who I would have grown up to be. Words connected me to the world and to the wider universe. Every day I thank God for words.

Jane Hertenstein
Latest posts by Jane Hertenstein (see all)