Monday, July 6, 2015


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Macmillan Audio asked me a terrific and thought-provoking question.  They were doing a survey of authors, asking:  "In and around your college years, and especially at graduation time, what was the book that most prepared you for real life?"

I think that's fascinating--because a book you loved might not have been the one that later you realized changed your life.

And I had never thought about it that way.  Shakespeare's plays, of course, I adore, but did that prepare me for the real world? Maybe. All the thrillers like FAILSAFE, yeah, I suppose. And Advise and Consent, I remember, being so intriguing. Maybe--The Great Gatsby? But how? Or  Look Homeward Angel? Yeah, but why? Custom of the Country? Sort of.

And then I got it.  And I sent Macmillan my  "about 100-words-only" reason:

"Character's names? Can’t remember. Plot? Vaguely. But the philosophy Robert Pirsig taught in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is never far from my consciousness. I still think about that book. Every day. Yes, it’s cool, and a road trip story, with adventures, chance meetings, obstacles, and triumphs. But what I profoundly remember are the reminders to be present. To do the best you can. To pay attention. To seek quality. (Is that what you meant, Mr. Pirsig? That’s what I decided forty-five years ago.) In one scene, the rider tries to ignore an obviously broken motorcycle. Why live with that? the main character asks. Face your problems, fix them, then go forward with knowledge, serenity, and power. What better lesson could there be?"

So how about you?  What book would you give a graduating senior? As it turned out, was there a book that prepared you for reality?

HALLIE EPHRON: A book that PREPARED me for reality? Through the Looking Glass? Catch-22? Portnoy's Complaint??? Seriously, the books I remember reading and thinking a lot about when I was graduating were novels by Anne Tyler and Barbara Kingsolver. and Toni Morrison. Pick one? Aaaagh. I'll go for "The Bean Trees" which, according to Kingsolver, addresses the question: "What are the many ways, sometimes hidden and underground ways, that people help themselves and each other survive hard times."

DEBORAH CROMBIE:  Hank, not fair to make us think so hard on a Monday! This was really tough. Most of the books that I think of as having had a big impact on my world view were read earlier.  Real life? I'm not sure I've ever been prepared for real life. But I'll throw in two, although I can't swear I read them in college. Anne Morrow Lindberg's Gift from the Sea, and Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen. Both those books made me very aware of the beauty in small, everyday things, and of the fact that people do manage to cope with loss if they can still see that beauty.

LUCY BURDETTE: This is a very hard question Hank! Because I don't really remember reading much fun stuff in college. I was majoring in French literature and art history and reading about poet Paul Eluard and artist Max Ernst and most of that I couldn't begin to remember or explain now...

However, my best friend was a poet and he sent me poems to read, and I still have a lovely book of poems by Denise Levertov called LIFE IN THE FOREST. I was buried deep in late teenage angst and trying to figure out who I'd be and who would travel along with me. I remember being deeply touched by this poem by Sappho:

 Tonight I've watched
the moon and then
the Pleiades
go down

The night is now
half-gone; youth
goes; I am

in bed alone


It's beautiful isn't it? But so sad. Still speaks to me about how fast time goes and how important the people in your life are--like you Reds!

HANK: I love this! See? A THEME!  All of these choices are about COPING. Right? ! Amazingly so. And so very personal, and so very revealing. Oh. Fabulous.

 If you are interested in what the other authors in the survey chose--it's fascinating! Click here. But first tell us what you think--As a college age person what book did you realize later best prepared you for real life?


And don't forget Lucy Burdette's  FATAL RESERVATIONS is now ON SALE! Come visit tomorrow, hear all about it, and you could win a prize. (But it will not be her book! So you know what to do....)


  1. This is a really tough question, so I'm going to go with what immediately came to mind: Isaac Asimov's "Foundation" series and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" [although I'm positive I'd read them long before college]. Life's lesson learned: Always do the right thing because it's the right thing to do.

  2. Yes! What a good idea to choose the first thing, Joan--very wise! Oh, TKAM, definitely. Definitely! ANd how often do we think about "what would Atticus do?" even now Absolutely.

    Did I read the Asimov? Hmm. Not sure. Tell us more! xoo

  3. The book I must select will sound odd to those who have a good idea of my age, but I was a student until I retired from the school I graduated from. I choose Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. It changed my life by reintroducing me to fantasy as a healing art.

  4. Oh, my goodness. The Bean Trees. Denise Levertov. Such important authors from my past. I read Anais Nin's diaries on a long cross-country bus trip after college and was deeply impressed by her mystery and devotion to the sensual. She didn't say it, but there was an element of about being present in those stories, too. On the same trip I read Robin Lakoff's "Language and Women's Place" and it inspired me to head to graduate school in linguistics a couple of years later. It was a real eye-opener for me politically and career-wise.

  5. It's odd this question should come up this morning. Here was a summer holiday looming, and my choice of reading? To pull Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance off the shelf, where it's been lo these many years since my undergrad days. It taught me that there is a way out of depression, that there will be an end, and the only way to get there is to be aware of the present moment. Breathe in, breathe out, keep climbing the mountain one slow step after another.

    And Reine, I have all the Harry Potter books, and I have read them all many times--I've never lost my awe and delight in the characters and story JK Rowling so masterfully created.

  6. The Great Gatsby and Phillip Roth's novella "Goodbye Columbus." I didn't dwell in the past, but moved forward, with great curiosity, joy, and anticipation...which I am still doing.

  7. Harry Potter! What a great choice! Because it really changes the way you look at the world--things might not be exactly what they seem, right? ANd something amazing could be right around the corner--if you only know to lo. Or what platform at the railway station to use. Or what spell to cast: Bestsellerimmensioso!

    Edith--so great to have that same connection with Hallie and Roberta. Being present--another theme, right?

  8. SO Flora, how was it? I've been afraid to read it again..should I?

    ANd Margaret, Goodbye COlumbus. You just about made me burst into tears.

  9. As an English major, I read soooo many books (& plays & poems), but what I learned from all of them, and I will focus now on Virgils's Aeneid, is that I can tackle dense prose and find meaning in it. One of my favorite courses was "Novels in Translation" where we read BUDDENBROOKS. What a book! I think of it often -- the images will never leave me. It is great to be imprinted by the classics at a young age.

  10. Hank, I skimmed most of the philosophical discussion; I wanted to retrace the journey, to understand why he came out hopeful at the end.

  11. Denise Ann, what do you think it means to be imprinted by the classics? And I agree--what a power to be able to look at a book and not say--oh, that's too difficult.

    Okay, Flora, I will give it a try! Thank you! I feel like the "being present" and being positive" and taking care is still so strongly with me.. Share more if you want…xoo

  12. The World According to Garp. All kinds of people live in this world, and some of them are terribly damaged by life, but there must always be hope. That was the message I got from Garp.

  13. The Women's Room by Marilyn French. It took years for that book to fully influence me, but it was one of the first books I read about feminism and feminism changed my life. I still think about the scene when Mira asks her husband if he notices how clean the house is because that's what she spent her time doing that day.

  14. Marianne in MaineJuly 6, 2015 at 9:10 AM

    It wasn't in high school or college, way before that, but the book that has made the biggest impact on me was RICHARD HALLIBURTON'S COMPLETE BOOK OF MARVELS. It was full of stories of places near and far. From Niagara Falls to Mount Athos in Greece to The Great Wall of China and places in between. It totally fascinated me and instilled in me a desire to travel and visit these places. It also taught me the difference between the Orient and the Occident which won me a geography prize in grammar school. I recently found my book after many years and passed it on to my great nieces who grew up on the French-Swiss border and have already done more traveling at 5 and 7 than I have in my old age.

    What I remember of my college days (pleasure) reading was a well-worn copy of LOVE STORY being passed from room to room in the dorm and staying up all night to read THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN. Scared me to death but it was my first binge read and I haven't stopped. So I don't have any great philosophical words of wisdom other than to read. Always read.

  15. Oh wow. I was a voracious reader in high school - junior high kindled my love of Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark. I majored in English in college (American and British lit). I have read so many great works - Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Austen, Twain, Miller, etc.

    But the book that best prepared me for life? Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Read that as a senior in high school, ready to go off to college. Read Maybe, Maybe Not a few years later as I prepared to graduate college. I found Robert Fulghum's essays so funny and touching and poignant. I laughed, I cried. I need to read them again (and looking at the list, I'm missing a few). I took my wedding vows from his Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives.

    Also something that remains incredibly powerful for me - The Desiderata by Max Ehrman. I have a decrepit, highlighted copy that my dad gave me before I headed off to college, now stashed carefully in a drawer. He bought a framed print for my daughter for her birthday last year, as she prepared to start high school. "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence."

  16. I read Pride and Prejudice in the spring of my senior year in high school, taught by Danny Dwyer, one of my few memorable teachers who died too young in an accident. Every spring for so many years I reread P&P, loving it more each year. How did prepare me for the reality of life? It taught me the folly of human relationships and that a good sense of humor goes a long way in dealing with them. And of course, this was helpful personally, but when I became a lawyer dealing with family law, it was invaluable.

  17. The Last Whole Earth Catalog-- Google before the people had access to the internet

  18. This is going to sound hokey and very 1960s, but for me, it was two books, The Little Prince which I read in French before I knew there was an English edition, and the Desiderata.

  19. Quite a challenge for a Monday morning.

    High school reading, not college (although since I finally completed by interrupted bachelor's degree at age 50, that would give me lots more choices!): Plato's Republic, specifically, "The Cave."

    It still resonates with me today. Step forward and explore, even when those you love and want to bring out into the light (big, bright world!) don't understand.

  20. Oh, my goodness, you guys are BLOWING me away! This is so lovely, and so thoughtful. And also so indicative of how there are things were don;t really talk about but are so deep within ourselves..and it's fascinating and enlightening to hear this. What a perfect way to learn about each other.

    Ramona, GARP! Of course. The Undertoad. The most perfect image ever. And I think of it every time I yell at someone driving too fast through the neighborhood.

    And The Desiderata--what is that, actually, did anyone ever find out? No matter the origin, I still love :And whether or not it is clear to you, you are a part of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. Something like that. (What is it again?)

  21. I can't keep up! But all these are great--

    I don't think i ever read The Women's Room. Which mens I now get to--hurray. That's an incredibly poignant moment, JAnet.

    Debbie, what was that, anyway? I remember seeing it and looking at it. but I never quite "got" it. Tell us more!

    CYndi, so fascinating that you got maybe 30 more years to be able to make a selection!

    Michele--so sweet that your life turned out that chicken and egg, right?

  22. Hank, it's a prose poem. I think this page offers a decent overview:

    Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

    As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

    If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

    Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

    Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

    Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

    Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.

    With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.

    Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

  23. LOVE STORY! We SOBBED. For WEEKS. And looking back, now, it seems so…well, you choose the word. :-)

    But Andromeda Strain, yeah. Fabulous. Like COMA.

    (And so funny what little tiny triumphs we remember-like Occident and Orient. (Failure, too-I was the queen of spellers a shoo-in to win the bee. Until I missed "alcohol." ALCOHOL! And Vicki Thimlar spelled it correctly. This was what, fifty-seven years ago?)

  24. I may be rare even among English majors in choosing _The Scarlet Letter_ for its lesson in standing strong despite pressure and its shining a light on the hypocrisy of the righteous. I'm not sure it prepared me for real life or if anything could, as I'd still, as a friend put it, prefer to live in the made-up world, but it did provide an introduction.
    I second the nomination of the Harry Potter series, a compendium of mythology and magic that has transformed many into avid readers. In other recent publications, i'll tip my hat to Susan McBride's _The Debs_ for help in dealing with mean girls <3

  25. Always loved Desiderata, too - thanks for the reminder!

  26. Hank, you must read The Women's Room, if only to appreciate and remember how far we've come (and how far we have yet to go). I just reread it last year. It's a bit dated, of course, but holds up well.

    A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was pivotal for me, since my own childhood was just as bleak, also thanks to an alcoholic father. It was good to see that it's possible to overcome such beginnings.

    And though I didn't read it until I was in my late 20's, Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad has made a profound impact on my life, and on my global outlook. Hard to believe a 150-year old novel could have such power, but it did, and still does. Plus, it's hilariously funny.

  27. Janet Reid--yes! feminism was a game changer. Which reminds me of OUR BODIES OURSELVES. Huge impact!

    And I should add some cookbooks right? The Joy of Cooking and Diet for a Small Planet and Moosewood--they all taught me things about taking care of myself and the people around and the planet...

  28. Yes. Thanks Mary! "...No doubt the universe is unfolding as it should."

    The Debs--I've never heard of it. And I need it. Thank you, MAry!

    And I never read A Tree Grows. Somehow, I decided, years an years ago, that it would be too sad. I often hear people talk about how much they love it, though..

  29. So many of these resonate with me. Our Bodies Ourselves - we first had it in newsprint! The Last Whole Earth Catalog. OMG. Diet for a Small Planet. The Women's Room. The Little Prince, which I first read in Portuguese as an exchange student in Brazil.

    And Mary, thanks for sharing Desiderata. I don't think I've ever seen it. Amazing approach to life.

    Thanks for starting all this, Hank!

  30. And, I'll admit it. A couple other "important" books were FEAR OF FLYING and THE HAPPY HOOKER. For research purposes, of course.

  31. Fear of Flying. OF COURSE!

    And Marjorie Morningstar. And Youngblood Hawke.

    When the new Our Bodies came out, I went back to find my old one. It was a really early edition, I am happy to say. Wow. That was a truly necessary book, remember?

  32. Cookbooks, Lucy. Yes! From Julia Child, I learned to read the WHOLE recipe first, then cook. (Otherwise you get to the part that says "Add the Bechamel sauce…" and you're like-- WHAT??)

    And remember when we all read The Other Side of Midnight? Still, it wasn't my number ONE.

  33. And oh, if you go to the Macmillan site, you'll see ALice Hoffman also chose THE LITTLE PRINCE!

    And Jude Deveraux chose JANE EYRE.


  34. Oh My Gosh! The memories here - wow!!!!

    The Women's Room! The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance! Marjorie Morningstar!

    My entry is a book that many will say was too sappy, too long, too too. But. It found its way to me when my hometown was under Martial Law during race riots in the streets and the National Guard was living in tents in our school yards. The book is Ann Fairbairn's "Five Smooth Stones." I loved it in the 60s and love it every bit as much today.

  35. I hope I don't sound self-serving when I say that Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night had a profound influence on me when I read it in college (probably four times, cover to cover). It was not the mystery that was most important to me, but the ways that the characters related to each other (at an Oxford women's college--and I attended a women's college) coupled with the evolving and nuanced relationship between Peter and Harriet, culminating in a real conflict about the roles of women. A lot of that still resonates.

    And, dang--I still have most of the books others have mentioned. My copy of The Women's Room, Our Bodies, Ourselves, Fear of Flying, Love Story. I can't let them go.

  36. Slaughterhouse Five. (Hey, it was an era back when I graduated!) after four years of reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne, Richardson (hey, it was old school back then!) it was an astonishing piece of witty, smart, startling writing, with serious themes that resonated in a different war. Great topic, Hank!

  37. Making a list... Sheila, I loved Gaudy Night, too. Sayers led the way, beyond plot to characer.

    NancyM: Vonnegut would be on my list if I could name more than one.

    Marjorie Morningstar? Really??? Maybe without the final chapters.

  38. Oh, Hallie, I don't even remember the final chapters. :-) I mean, i was--seventeen. It was just--she was out there, in the real world. Doing stuff.

    Catch-22! (And my dad was taken prisoner, too, in that war--he and Kurt Vonnegut, high school classmates, were in the war together and in prison camp together.)

    Absolutely. And no one has mentioned CATCHER IN THE RYE. Now that is interesting.

  39. So what happened in the final chapters, anyway?

  40. Yes, Marjorie Morningstar! I'd have read anything Herman Wouk wrote, after that. The characters were so alive (and Hallie, I don't remember the ending). So yes to Youngblood Hawke, as well. Wouk had a way with character names, didn't he? Also, his War and Remembrance series (Winds of War, etc.) were instrumental in teaching me more about WWII than any of my history classes in high school, etc.

  41. Yes yes yes, Karen, Winds of War. ANd Remembrance. Amazing.

    And on the Macmillan survey? Anita Diamant chose Mary Poppins. Paul Doiron chose War and Peace. Discuss.


  42. The Peter Principle
    Laurence J. Peter
    This book taught me all I needed to know to survive 40 yrs in the business world and to run my own small business. Once you realize most people rise to their level of incompetence, you can use that succeed.

  43. Of COURSE! The Peter Principle! Do we not all think of that EVERY day?

  44. Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield's voice made me realize I wasn't strange all by myself. There were others.

  45. Oh, right, Jack! Talk about voice. I still think about the equipment on the train, and the vomity couch.

  46. Preparing me for real life? The first books that come to mind are books I consider cringe-worthy nowadays. But they helped empower me, as a female, to feel like I had the right to be paid fairly (or better than fairly) for working hard and being good at what I do: Ayn Rand -- Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.

    At the time, they had a huge influence on me. For me, the basic messages were: Do what you do well and don't feel guilty about the money you earn, and we all deserve to earn money for our good work. (I was young!)

    But some of this sentiment still holds today -- as creatives/artists we writers get the shaft money-wise (unless we're bigwig writers), and it's not right that advances are so low and people can steal our works online, etcetera. We work hard for our craft; we deserve to be paid.

    :-) I'll put the pedestal away now.

  47. Lisa, that's fascinating. Yes, we take what we need t the time we need it, right? xox

  48. Kind of funny, right? I had no clue what her overall philosophy was all about. I didn't care, actually. I was a unworldly, naive kind of kid.

  49. Lisa, my daughter (soon to be 15) has a T-shirt that says, "The question isn't who is going to let me. It's who is going to stop me."

    Yup. Ayn Rand.

    I'm quite sure that if she read any of Rand's works, she'd also cringe. But that statement really has had a huge impact on her as a girl.

  50. SO interesting! Whoa. xoo (Give her a hug from us!)

  51. This one came a few years after college, but it's still the one that most seems to suit the question -- or the mood of it: Mary Oliver's DREAMWORK. Wild Geese, The Journey, and other poems that still seem so brilliantly simple and wise, finding both the questions and the answers in nature, and in the living itself....

  52. Exactly, Mary! That was the sentiment I was reacting too also. It almost felt like a girl power thing.

  53. The Bean Trees, amazing book.

    I didn't go to college and at about that age I was surviving in an abusive marriage.

    The Burke books by Andrew Vachss, propelled me along in my healing process after I got single.

    The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith, wow, the sobbing. Helped me learn how to deal with grief.

  54. This morning, when I pulled up the blog, there were already more than forty comments. But I was rushed, and I thought I really wanted to wait until I had time to sit down and read through everyone's responses. They are wonderful! The choices are so different, and so interesting--and there are so many things I want to read, or read again!!!

    Do you know I'd never read the Desiderata? I'm making a copy. And I've never read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Getting that!

    I'm taking a little two-day writing retreat later this week, and I think I will dig out my copy of Virginia Wolfe's A Room of One's Own to take with me. It made a huge impression on me when I first read it and I need a reminder that I do both need and deserve the place and the time to do creative work. And that the work does matter. Thank you all for sharing!

    Oh, and Reine and Flora, Harry Potter is a big one for me, too.

  55. What's DREAMWORK, Leslie? I'm looking it up instantly.

    Gaylin, I didn't know that. And you are the proof of the power of words!

    Hey, Debs! I so agree! AMAZING.

  56. Hank and Flora, I've often experienced Harry Potter as a zen understanding. Now I need to seek it out in motorcycle repair, whereas before the universe only asked I repeat the phrase, "I don't want a pickle. I just wanna ride my motor-sickle."

    Debs... I am so taken by the Harry Potter books that I bought the UK version at Blackwell's Bookshop in Oxford and had them sent back home. Then I bought the US version of the set and one set each of the CD recordings read by Stephen Fry and Jim Dale. I would like to go back to school now and redo my thesis. Since JK Rowling was class day speaker, I now feel this might be acceptable.

    Great blog and comments today! Thank you.

  57. Arlo! Reine, let us know how you like it…remember, we read it almost forty years ago!

  58. The poem Spelling by Margaret Atwood, which I read about halfway through my senior year and changed how I saw writing, motherhood and power.

  59. Oh, I'd forgotten the woman's movement books. Yes, The Woman's Room, and Our Bodies, Our Selves. Marlo Thomas has done such wonderful things with her life and yet she seems to remain completely down to earth, and always cheerful. That smile! Amazing woman.

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  61. Hank, I will! And I love Arlo! I even follow his photography, especially of western Mass., on flickr!

  62. YOu all are amazing! I have so much to read now…thanks Kate--looking up SPELLING. Have you read MAPLE by Robert Frost?

  63. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver. I could relate to the family of origin issues. Exploring how each surviving daughter made her way, forged her own path was powerful. I am still haunted by the final passages.

  64. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most influential and favorite books of my life, but it wasn't a college read. College brought other books to my attention that affected me for one reason or another. It was in my late teens, early twenties that I fell in love with Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, making me aware of the differences between the faces people often show the world and the reality of their lives. Then Graham Greene's The End of the Affair gave rise to my wondering more about the relationship of a person and his/her God. I felt bargaining with God and forsaking one's feelings wasn't what that relationship should be. Oh, and Allen Ginsberg's Howl made me feel very grown up, reading material that shocked many adults in my life outside of college. Howl gave me permission to be an individual.

  65. Hank, I love Maple by Robert Frost too. It was the poem that really made Robert Frost for me.

  66. Oh, Kate, that's wonderful. Huh. xoxoo Me, too.

    Spoon River! Brilliant, Kathy Reel! All those choices--very profound.