“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road,” Anna Quindlen wrote in her 1998 book "How Reading Changed My Life." "They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” At the time, that book was the latest in a long tradition of such memoirs, a tradition clearly intended to celebrate the way books and reading not only inform us but form us – how they give shape to the lives we lead and turn us into the people we become. The tradition is evergreen (2017 readers saw it just recently in Pamela Paul's "My Life with Bob," for example), because for every author writing such a book, there are dozens of impressionable young readers venturing for the first time into their local library or bookshop and the incalculably broader worlds beyond.
The tradition continues with Ann Hood's fast-paced, beguiling new book Morningstar: Growing Up with Books. Hood takes her readers through the dips and swerves of her autobiography, told almost entirely from the books'-eye-view of the various libraries that accompanied her, shaped her beliefs, molded and reinforced her sense of self, and provided her with a constantly-shifting sounding-board. There are epiphanies and loves and marriages and heartaches in these quick chapters – each chapter more or less governed by one particular book – and all such moments are knitted together by an underlying theme of discovery.
The books she encounters are discoveries in their own right, and there are some wonderfully passionate readings along the way. The bathos of Harold Robbins's "A Stone for Danny Fisher," for instance, elicits fond and slightly defensive memories: “Even now,” Hood writes, “I like to sometimes indulge in the guilty pleasure of reading a book that literary snobs would never consider reading.” Dalton Trumbo's "Johnny Got His Gun" resonates with particular directness in context of her cousins signing up and shipping out to the Vietnam War. The memories of her first “real” book purchase – Erich Segal's "Love Story," bought at a shopping mall Waldenbooks – are alive with the urgency of this rite of passage: “Could the shaggy-haired, green-eyed boy who rang up the purchase understand how important this moment was for me?”
In these memories, she often ends up identifying with characters wildly different from herself (“Isn't this the magic of books?” she asks, knowing full well the answer), characters from, say, John Updike's "Rabbit, Run" or Herman Wouk's "Marjorie Morningstar," who taught this daughter of small-town blue-collar Catholic America all kinds of things about exile and personal courage. Thanks to the immediacy of her prose, readers feel like they're watching Hood hurrying back to her Bleecker Street apartment and flopping on her couch to read newly-bought books straight on 'til morning.
And in Hood, all this reading germinates a vocation. The more our author reads, the stronger a pull she feels to become an author herself – likewise a familiar progression in reading memoirs of this kind. Susan Sontag once wrote that “Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer,” and this becomes true for Hood, who eventually begins yearning to create books of her own. “All I had to do,” she tells us, “to make my own dreams of becoming a writer come true was to write every day, and to read every book I could get my hands on.” “Read every book you can get your hands on” has been a staple of writing advice from Ben Jonson to Saul Bellow, and it's through vivid autobiographies like "Morningstar," where books form the spine of an entire life, that such advice becomes real.
She very much does this in the course of "Morningstar," and like so many books of this type, the author worries about boring her readers long, long before those readers are even slightly bored; it's hard to imagine anybody who won't wish this book were five times its length, filled with five times as many memories happy and sad, and five times as many reading discoveries made in the teeth of boredom, distraction, and personal tragedy. Hood presents herself as a character in the stories she tells, and fans of her novels "The Obituary Writer" and "Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine" will recall her evocative, economical methods of evoking drama. Young readers finding this book for the first time will feel an immediate connection with the ways the rough angles of real life are sanded and shaped by the constant reading Hood does.
Those young readers exploring the adult section of their library for the first time, or walking the aisles of their bookstore with a birthday gift certificate in hand, could do much worse than to encounter "Morningstar," with its bright tales of literature's quiet, pervasive power. But older readers will love the book, too – among other reasons, for all the fond reminders of how they became who they are.