Rheta Grimsley Johnson: The books that rocked your world

April 20, 2013 7:37:53 PM

Rheta Grimsley Johnson -


MONTEVALLO, Ala. -- It was a bookstore in an old house that also sold chocolate treats and bottled beer, pretty much a working definition of heaven.


A group of convivial folks, mostly from the nearby college, had come to listen to Alabama author and veteran journalist Frye Gaillard talk about his latest, "The Books That Mattered, A Reader's Memoir."


In writing compellingly about some of his favorite books and authors, the ones that moved and shaped him, Gaillard has produced another book that matters. It makes you want to dissect your life the way you did that frog in 10th-grade biology, looking for the guts and backbone of your beliefs and morals and philosophical leanings.



He wrote about Harper Lee and Rick Bragg, Anne Frank and Robert Penn Warren, John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens, all from the A List. He also wrote about Dee Brown and Larry L. King and the first writer to get his attention, Esther Forbes, who wrote "Johnny Tremain."


Inspired by Gaillard's choices, men and women at the meeting took turns telling what books had changed their lives, or at least jump-started them into reading. Fourth grade seemed to be the most popular year for life-altering trips to the library.


Not in my case. I think my epiphanous read was much earlier, perhaps when I was 3 or 4, not much later. And the book that hooked me was read to me, not by me, and I'll admit the illustrations played as big a part in the enchantment as the words.


I loved "Make Way for Ducklings," the story of city ducks that get a police escort and waddle their way to an island in a lagoon of a Boston park. The illustrations and text were by the iconic Robert McCloskey, and, for my money, look like illustrations in a book should look. Not all overladen with riotous color, but black and white and acutely realistic. They were done in nuanced charcoal, which allowed the young reader to add color in her head.


Later I would read his "Homer Price" series. McCloskey's attention to the detail of gears and switches and Rube Goldberg-type design of a fantastical doughnut machine held me captive for hours. His grass tickled your feet. You could almost feel Homer's soft burr cut.


I started thinking about how illustrations always influence my reading, from the freckles on Anne of Green Gables' nose to Beautiful Joe's fathomless eyes, from steamy scenes on the covers of James M. Cain paperbacks to, well, the perpetual virgins on Louisa Mae Alcott's novels. Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover, but you can sure buy one because of it.


Just another reason I don't understand those readers who claim to prefer Kindle and other e-book devices to real books. I can see using such a thing in a pinch, if both your arms were in casts or something. But not to have a physical book to admire and shelve makes me sad.


If not for the art, the Little Prince wouldn't be standing in a green jumpsuit on his planet on my shelf. Pippi and her monkey couldn't frolic forever across the old jam cabinet in my living room. Mark Twain's perfect face and Thurber's hound wouldn't reassure me every time I pass the sagging bookcase in the hall.


I agree with a lot of Frye's choices; they are among my own favorites, especially "The Old Man and Lesser Mortals," "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter." But Frye wrote that his hope is not that we will adopt the same favorite books, swayed by his elegant telling of their back stories, but that we will "create an equally personal list."


"Personal" is the key word. It's a fun exercise, vital maybe, not to mention illustrated.