The Books That Shape Us

Reader paintingPerhaps you’ve noticed the exercise making the rounds on Facebook lately: One user will post a list of the ten books that “stayed with them” in some way and challenge their friends to do the same. As Facebook trends go, it’s a fun one: We always like to hear what our friends are reading, and it’s a pleasant surprise when someone we don’t know well turns out to be a (literary) kindred spirit. But it’s also revealing to see which books helped to shape the people we know into, well, the people we know! 

Because when we read, we meet people we otherwise might never meet. We visit places we will never see in real life. We even travel through time. And those experiences—armchair though they may be—have the power to change us. Science agrees: Cognitive researchers have proven that reading has the power to affect the way we understand and respond to the world around us.

So from time to time, we’ll be sharing with you some of the books that have had a profound impact on our lives. They won’t necessarily be grand literary classics or hard-hitting political tomes. They will be books that have stayed with us over the years and shaped the way we view people, places, and life in general. If you’d like to share a significant title from your own life, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

First up, Bas Bleu’s social media director and reviewer KG tells us about a seminal reading experience from her childhood:

Outlaws of SherwoodI read a lot as a kid. And not just at home and at school. My parents realized early on that I was better behaved in church if I had a good book to read, so I smuggled novels into the sanctuary every Sunday morning. My genres of choice were usually mysteries (Nancy Drew was my spirit guide), ghost stories, and fantasy fiction.

But in fifth grade, I came across a copy of The Outlaws of Sherwood by Robin McKinley. McKinley is best known for her Newbery Medal-winning novel The Hero and the Crown, but it was her retelling of the Robin Hood legend that won my heart. My experience to date with the English outlaw had been via Walt Disney’s animated classic, in which the famed archer is portrayed as a wily red fox battling scrawny lion Prince John. Disney’s—and popular culture’s—Robin Hood was brave, arrogant, and a dead shot with a bow and arrow. But by McKinley’s pen, Robin of Locksley was a reserved young man haunted by self-doubt, a reluctant leader who was terrible with a bow and tongue-tied when it came to telling the woman he loved (Maid Marian) how he felt.

For an eleven-year-old kid whose reading habits hadn’t been too concerned with reality up to that point, McKinley’s tale was eye opening. Her Robin Hood was nothing like Disney’s, yet he seemed more real. He wasn’t dashing or resolute, and sometimes his temper got the better of him. There were days when he really hated living in cold, damp Sherwood Forest, and he rarely had enough to eat. Worst of all, his followers and the public at large demanded more of him than he felt able to give. Reading about him made me wonder if the famous people I saw on TV, read about in magazines, or learned about in history class weren’t exactly who the press or my schoolbooks made them out to be. Perhaps the people I looked up to in life were more vulnerable than I realized. In The Outlaws of Sherwood, even the “happy ending” wasn’t so black and white. Adventures ended, and there were consequences to every choice, even the “right” ones made by heroes.

I reread the novel a few years back, fearful it wouldn’t hold up, but it did. For me, at least. By now I think it’s out of print. So I’ll hang on to my dog-eared pocket paperback copy, and try to live by its lesson to look beyond popular opinion—in politics, relationships, and all walks of life—in search of the truth behind the legend.

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