Origin Stories

How our most beloved books first reached our hands.

By Beth Meroski with contributions from others

“What’s your favorite book?”

What a loaded question.  It’s like being asked all at once: “What’s your best understanding of the meaning of life?”, “What ideologies do you adhere to?” and of course “Do you have decent taste in literature?”

Suffice to say, I’m stressed out big-time whenever this question is asked of me.  My interior dialogue looks a little like this: “The Fountainhead?  No, they’ll think I adhere to Objectivism or Tea Party politics.  The Great Gatsby?  No, no, everyone read that in high school, that’s too easy.  Something by Paul Auster?  No, that looks like I’m trying too hard.  Argg, I guess I’ll just use my old stand-by, Pride and Prejudice.”

Information about me can definitely be gleaned from my choice of Pride and Prejudice as my “favorite book” – but lately I’ve been wondering if how I first came to read the book is even more revealing about me and the way I interact with media.

I decided to poll some friends on their favorite books and the reasons why they picked up these works in the first place.  As predicted, their stories provide a richer understanding of them as people, as well as insight into their relationships with books.  I especially love how these stories read more like love stories than mere explanations.  (Also – The quality of their writing confirms that I have the smartest, funniest and most talented friends on the planet.)

Beth Meroski.  Pride and Prejudice, by: Jane Austen

“How a DVD Special Feature Led Me to Pride and Prejudice.  And how Pride and Prejudice Led Me to One of My Best Friends”

My journey to Pride and Prejudice, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, is one that Jane Austen purists would scoff at.  I saw the movie first.  AND, not even the “right” screen adaptation – Austenphiles prefer the BBC-Colin-Firth-miniseries to the 2002 film directed by Joe Wright (my introduction to the work).  I saw the film in 2003.  This was a time when I consumed films much more voraciously than books- which is a little less true today (I think my TV-addiction takes up the lion share of ALL my media consumption these days).  What hasn’t changed since my 13-year-old self first watched Pride and Prejudice is my love of DVD commentaries.  Thinking back, it was Joe Wright’s director’s commentary of Pride and Prejudice that ignited my desire to read the film’s source material.  Throughout the commentary he often touched upon the pressure that came with adapting Pride and Prejudice for the screen.  The novel is so beloved by so many, that it was important to Joe Wright to “get it right” (rhymes!).  So, in addition to appreciating the story, and desiring to live in the world of Pride and Prejudice for longer, I wanted to read this book that so many felt so passionately about.

So I did.

I picked up a cheap paperback copy at Borders (RIP) and got to it.  And I fell hard.  I adored every word, every nuance, every everything about the book.  In the ensuing years, that cheap paperbook copy received more love than it could handle, and today its cover is two threads away from dismemberment.

Pride and Prejudice came back into my life the summer before my senior year.  I was assigned to read it as part of the summer reading assignment for my AP Brit Lit class (the best class at TMHS, I will fight anyone who disagrees).  I didn’t have to read it again, as I’d consumed it about eight times by then, but I of course did.  One evening in late August of 2007, I went to a last-hurrah-before-school-starts bonfire.  I got to talking to a friend of mine about the book.  Her name was Julie.  I had known Julie since elementary school, and we dallied about with the same group of friends, but I wouldn’t say were especially close – that was, until that evening.  While others roasted marshmallows and played guitar hero, we spent the whole night talking about Mr. Bennett’s witticisms and what a skank we both thought Lydia was.  As we talked, I had this strange premonition-like feeling that we were going to become great friends.

And we did.

Jeremy Glass. Ham on Rye, by: Charles Bukowski

“Why Charles Bukowski Makes Me Gag With Excitement”

Undoubtedly, my favorite book is Ham on Rye by Bukowski. A tale about a man who does nothing and wants nothing in return. As I scarf down my plate of lasagna, my mind wanders to the first time I even heard Bukowski’s name uttered. I can remember, in school, a sea of tight jeans, thick-framed specs, and hair flips. Hipster guys and their hipster girls would talk about him as if he were a close friend, while I would sit in the back of the class wondering if they had even ever read a book by him. Years later, I was hanging out with my roommate who just told me he bought a book – Portions of a Wine Stained Notebook – a collection of short stories, poetry, reviews, and musings by the Buk himself. He told me how every other story was Bukowski shitting on famous authors. My interest was piqued. Flash forward a month or two later, I was at the bookstore with my mom (we had a routine where we’d buy books and coffee together and talk about how my brothers are nut-cases) and she offered to buy me anything I wanted. My go-to was usually George Orwell or Hunter S. Thompson, because I’m a pretentious scrub. That day, I wandered around and spotted Ham on Rye. Remembering what my roommate had said about the guy, I thought I’d give the book a spin. I still remember the first time I realized how incredible it was. I was sitting across from my then girlfriend, as she talked on the phone, in some stupid coffee shop in Boston. As boredom set in, I remembered that I had a book in my backpack. Intending to only get through a chapter or two, I started to read. WRONG. Instantly I was pulled in. I think it was Bukowski’s raw tone, angry prose, and goddamn raunchy sex stories that drew me in. Mind you, this is a book about his childhood. Regardless, as the girlfriend chatted away, I became thankful that I decided to pick up that very book, and that she would be on the phone that very day, and that I had brought Ham on Rye with me. Since then, I’ve bought LITERALLY everything he has ever published and have stuck myself into a Bukowski literary circle-jerk nearly every day. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the girlfriend, she’s dead now. Nah, just kidding. She’s still alive.

Meg Elliott. Stranger in a Strange Land, by: Robert A. Heinlein

“AP US History, a Nun, and Billy Joel”

In the spring of twenty ought seven, I discovered the book, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein. I was a senior in high school- blowing through AP classes like they were nothing because I’d already chosen Indiana University as my post high school destination. It was in that fateful spring, that an AP US History opportunity led me to this destiny. My teacher, a Catholic nun who knew more about being charitable than US history, entertained my suggestion for performance-based extra credit. To understand what happens next, there are a few things that must be understood about me. First, I am a classic rock/oldies/pop music junkie and secondly, I will make myself do more work than necessary if I feel like I have control of the situation, rather than just do regular assignments like a normal student. So naturally, I suggested that I memorize the Billy Joel classic, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” and dramatically recite it to the class as opposed to writing a final paper based on one topic of US History post WWI. For those, like Sister History, who are unfamiliar with this chart-topper: ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire” pays homage to headlining US and world events that occurred in Joel’s life from his birth in 1949, to the release of the song in 1989. Because this was the same period in US history that we were studying, Sister History allowed my shenanigans and I went home that night to begin memorization and plan my mode of attack.
To properly interpret the song for my peers, I realized I needed to understand every historical figure/event/reference Joel makes in the song. Much to my chagrin, more than a handful were foreign to me. Much to my delight, Wikipedia filled in the blanks. In my “research” I looked up Joel’s reference to Stranger in a Strange Land and discovered it was a 1961 best-selling book that incorporated themes of sexual freedom and liberation through science fiction, themes I found very risqué for the year so of course I had to read it. Intrigued and curious, I ventured to Barns & Nobel where I was told no such book existed, clearly they don’t employ Billy Joel fans. My search turned to the internet, where it was easily found, bought and mailed to me- no thanks to B&N. The book was unlike anything I had ever read or even attempted to read. I was smitten and inspired to think about life in a way I never had before. It is hard to describe in any words other than that the characters in the book use: to grok, which is to comprehend in a way that allows for complete knowledge while knowing you can never fully grasp the concept. Since senior year I have yet to read a book that has affected me as much. I love it and I have AP US History, a nun, and Billy Joel to thank for it.

RJ Thieneman.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

“Huckleberry goes Great with Eggs and a Dash of Controversy”

On a hot, humid Kentucky night, in the comfort of my cold, air conditioned bedroom, my father sat next to the young me as he tried to read me to sleep. The book was Green Eggs and Ham. I loved this book. I cherished it. I would call it my favorite book. There’s only one problem: I’ve never read it. While I know the story by heart and could probably re-create a shotty drawing that resembles the pictures, I have never actually read Green Eggs and Ham. Now, this brings up a moral issue and the controversy of my piece:

Can blind people read? No they can’t.

Phew… I’m glad that’s behind us. Now, as life went on, I wandered down the path so many modern children stray towards. Reading was just not cool. I hated it. But, I’ll tell you what I did like… I liked playing outside, I liked exploring, and I liked adventure.

Life continued and I grew very fond of Indiana Jones. Yes, even Temple of Doom. Now, right about sophomore year of high school, I had a great English Teacher named Jeb Hilbert. He hated when people called him Jeb. Sounds more like Daddy problems to me, but I digress. He pulled me aside one day and said, “Hey, Thieneman. I know a book you would love. It’s called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.” See, I had heard of Samuel Clemens before and hadn’t thought twice about reading his back-country garbage. But I respected Jeb so I took his word for it. I read it once. Then twice. Then five more times. I was obsessed. Mark Twain became the Indiana Jones of literature in my life.

And so… that is the story of how Huck Finn became my favorite book. The end.

Emmy Higgins. Fantastic Mr. Fox, by: Roald Dahl

“Thanks Grandma”

Around holidays, my grandmother was painfully predictable with her gifts.  They were always, always BOOKS, which is just about the last thing most kids want to receive on Christmas morning.  I am horribly ashamed to admit that most of those books have sat gathering dust on a bookshelf somewhere. BUT, I’d like to think I’ve made up for it in the number of times I have consumed my all time favorite book, Fantastic Mr. Fox, or Roald Dahl at his absolute fucking best. I don’t know what it is, but that man has a way of spinning tales that completely captivate me. I must’ve read that book at least 40 times. At the time I received it, it was considered one of those scary “chapter” books that I was only just tackling. Now, I can sit down and blast through it in under an hour, which I am totally unashamed to admit I still do.  Maybe I like it so much because the entire premise is about gathering food, a topic I consider myself a bit of an expert on. Most of the pages probably have some sort of grease smear on them from the various hunger pangs that I felt while listening to Mr. Fox gobble down entire turkeys and hams. Oh baby I’m already hungry. The movie, to its credit, was very well done, and I’m so relieved that some disney darling wasn’t added in to the cast.  Wes Anderson created something that was, well, Wes Anderson. Personally, I think I will continue to sneak off into a quiet corner with a bag of fritos and return to the world of Mr. Fox whenever my new adult life allows me to.

Buddy Blackman. Less Than Zero, by: Bret Easton Ellis

“Kansas City.  Spring of 2004.  Sex, Drugs, and Books.”

Everyone was doing it. At that point I was only a casual reader, a real outsider. I’d go to a party and people were passing around Tolstoy like it grew on trees. Kids hanging in alleyways, lurking around trying to score a couple paragraphs. I held out as long as I could. I didn’t want to burnout. But before too long I found myself scanning through a Barnes & Noble looking for a quick fix.

Barnes always had the goods. Noble used to give me the runaround until I got hip to it and dealt strictly with Barney. It didn’t matter if I was looking for something light or heavy I just knew he’d have it ready.

One afternoon, temperature irrelevant, I was shuffling through the aisles in a daze when a little something struck my fancy. They were calling it Less Than Zero. It looked light, about 200 pages, something I thought I could handle.

Flash forward a week and I can’t put the thing down. It’s 3 AM on a school night and I’m strung out from reading. Every word is connecting, hitting hard. The book is Ali and my soul is George Foreman. It’s a real rumble in the jungle.

At first, all the nihilism and loneliness permeating the book was appealing. But I grew up, got a little wiser in my ways, and began to acquire a taste for finer literature. I’ve been clean for about 7 years now. Every once in a while, though, I’ll get the jones to crack it open again. But the moment is fleeting.

Drew Troller.  To Kill A Mockingbird, by: Harper Lee

I love the book To Kill a Mockingbird.  It may be the best book ever. Call me cliched. Fine. I don’t care. It’s awesome.
How did I come to encounter this book? Through the most standard way possible – a high school sophomore English class. I first read the book when I was assigned it in Honor English II – I was 15, and called by dad “Atticus” for about a year after that.
You may think it’s lame to find your favorite book ever through a high school English class. Well-read people, common sense says, find amazing literature on their own. But I say, show me someone who found their most influential novel in a classroom, and I’ll show you a wonderful English teacher.
I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird several times since English II. Each time, Tom Robinson’s fate breaks my heart. Boo Radley still scares the hell out of me. And I still see the best of my dad in Atticus Finch. But I get something new out of it.
And maybe that’s what English II taught me most – how to read literature from where I am. Wherever that is.


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