December 26th, 2006

Imprinting

Last week I got together with some friends from junior high—one of whom I only see once a year, when she grits her teeth and comes to visit her mother at Christmas. (Ah, the holidays. Never have so many endured so much for such a merry cause.) 

It’s funny to spend time with them, because no matter how many things have changed—careers, degrees, significant others, residences, even (in one surprising case) sexual orientation—when we gather together, we don’t think how long it’s been since our high school graduation, or how differently each of our lives has evolved. I guess that sums it up: our lives have changed, but our relationships with each other haven’t. (Which is not all to the good, since it means that I continue to be teased about stupid things I did in high school that, God willing, everyone else in our class has forgotten about.) 

These girls are imprinted on me. Sometimes I see something in a store that immediately makes me think of one of them; sometimes I hear something funny that I know only one of those longtime friends would fully appreciate. And it’s obvious by the matter-of-fact way they respond to my general insanity—which, after all, they’ve been experiencing since we were 12—that I’ve imprinted myself on them as well. Poor things. 

Which leads me to the writing portion of this blog entry: the books that have imprinted on me. There are too many to count, really—just as every interaction we have with another person changes us in some way (if only to make us avoid that person in future), each book I read works on me, sticks with me, acts on me. In some basic way, I think the books I loved as a child helped me grow up, helped me make decisions about the world I was just starting to experience, and shaped my world view.

Which ones are those powerfully imprinted books? Why, I’m so glad you asked: 

  • Little Town on the Prairie and These Happy Golden Years by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Fanatical as I became about the Little House books (don’t get me started on the TV show and the minimal resemblance it bears to said books), it’s funny to think how long I resisted reading them. I owned the first two for who knows how long, and only finally cracked open Little House in the Big Woods out of pure desperation for something new to read. The last two in the series (I’m not counting the later-published The First Four Years) are my favorite because of Laura’s ongoing battle with her teacher (I do wonder how they got on when they later became sisters-in-law) and Nellie Olson. Also her courtship with Almanzo, of course. And whenever I have a particularly full calendar, I can’t help but think of the title of one chapter, describing Laura’s similarly full schedule—“The Whirl of Gaiety.” (All right, I never said this book imprinting thing wasn’t pathetic.)

  • Narnia! My first Narnia excursion was The Horse and His Boy­—naturally, since I was completely rabid about horses. I read and re-read and re-read them, and hunted and hunted and prayed I would find an entrance to Narnia somewhere in my backyard. (Hey, if Eustace and Jill could find one at their school, there’s certainly no reason I couldn’t find one in the backyard.) When I received an issue of Cricket magazine with a cover illustration featuring a girl and a faun in a snowy wood, I was beside myself. “That,” I told my mother, “looks just like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” When I finally opened the magazine and discovered they had excerpted that very book I could hardly be contained. I even wrote to the publishers of Cricket to tell them what an excellent decision they’d made in excerpting from the finest series ever written.

  • The Scarlet Letter. I remember feeling excited when we were required to read this book in tenth grade, because I’d had such a thrilling experience reading it the first time: the morning I finished it, I sprawled across my mattress (my mother would have been changing the sheets if I hadn’t been in the way) and cried and cried and cried. Imagine my dismay when my classmates agreed that Arthur Dimmesdale was an idiotic weakling, and not worth Hester Prynne’s time. I guess you have to be a certain kind of person to really appreciate a good tragic love story.

  • Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Oh, Mr. Rochester. I definitely preferred him to Heathcliff, but Wuthering Heights didn’t require me to plough through the heroine’s unhappy childhood before diving into the love story. I haven’t re-read either one since college; I still enjoyed them, but already the moody, gloomy anti-hero had lost a lot of charm for me. Mr. Rochester wakes up eventually, but Heathcliff and Cathy are so damn stubborn, I just want to shake them. (Of course, if they hadn’t been so stubborn and hot-tempered, there probably wouldn’t have been any story… so I guess Emily Bronte had it right.)

  • Anne with an E. This was another series I resisted for a long time. I kept seeing these ridiculous Anne books in the spinner rack at the library. “The best beloved heroine of all time,” was the tagline above each title. “Ha!” I snorted to myself. “That’s what they think.” I was pretty stubborn too (not as stubborn as Cathy, but still), so I determined never to read and therefore never to love Anne Shirley. Unfortunately, there came a day when the selection at the spinner racks was pretty sparse, and so I reluctantly checked out Anne of Green Gables. And yes, she’s pretty lovable. I learned a lot from these books: that breaking a slate over a boy’s head might make him love you; that spelling of names is indeed as important as I always suspected (this is probably when I started introducing myself as “Elisabeth with an S”); and what kindred spirits are.

  • Understood Betsy and Roller Skates. It’s unclear to me exactly why I associate these two books; they’re by different authors, they take place in different times, and the heroines couldn’t be more different. I don't think they were even published around the same time. I don’t see them in the spinner racks anymore, but when I was a kid they were all over the place. I remember reading Understood Betsy in my very, very dim bedroom on a winter afternoon when I was supposed to be napping. I recommend you seek them out—simple, charming stories that they are.

  • Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott. Yes, Little Women is fine, and like all girls, I cried when Beth died. But Eight Cousins and its sequel Rose in Bloom are way more fun. The sequel I liked especially because Rose had to choose whom among her seven male cousins she was going to marry. Every time I re-read it I was thrilled that she ended up with bookish Mac, who wore glasses and wrote poetry. (I guess I never was your typical Heathcliff fan.)

Loads of titles are swimming through my brain, but I can’t be bothered to scoop them out—I have an itch to pull out Rose in Bloom and watch Mac slowly win Rose over. 

So cough up: which books imprinted on you?




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