The Book That Changed My Life
Not since ‘Catcher in the Rye’ have I been so moved
Most of us have that one book that shaped (or reshaped) us. The term for this type of work is a “quake book” because it is a work that shakes your very foundation, changing the way you view the world and everything in it.
The first book that changed my life was The Catcher in the Rye. My honors English teacher loved Chaucer, so we spent much of a semester slogging through The Canterbury Tales. I don’t remember much about high school, but I’ll never forget that. As such, I was never assigned Rye (or The Great Gatsby) in high school, so I came across it later than most and I believe this helped me.
Bret Easton Ellis has said that “you don’t get Gatsby at fourteen,” and I think the same is true of The Catcher in the Rye. The book is the same, but the reader changes and matures, changing the person’s relationship to the material. A fourteen year-old me would not have appreciated Salinger’s masterpiece the way I did when I was older. Weirdly, this same scenario — reading something a decade after I should have — would play out again with the same result.
For me, The Tender Bar is a quake book. Never before have I been so enamored and moved by words on a page, Rye included. Even The Goldfinch (which I loved) can’t compare because when I read The Tender Bar, I see myself and my past and my what-if future and what was and what could have been and what never will be. It is a flawless mixture of perfect prose, complex characters, and scintillating storytelling. I wrote about Moehringer’s writing last year in regards to the beautifully written Andre Agassi autobiography Open, but that was an uncredited assist. This is a memoir and it is staggering how good it is. The language is gorgeous, the details are rich but not overwrought, and the story moves along at a perfect pace, slowing down and speeding up as needed.
My first job out of college was in a prime location, in Center City, Philadelphia, and I would spend my lunch hour taking long walks or reading, oftentimes mixing the two when I would walk to the now-deceased Borders, browsing the shelves and imagining what it would be like if I were able to lock myself in like Henry Bemis until I had devoured every word.
Beginning on August 31, 2005, the New Releases table at the front of the store displayed a book that caught my eye. The cover showed the top half of a young boy peering out from below a rich, dark wood bar. I picked it up, read the synopsis on the inside cover, and, for some unknown reason, put it down. From that day forward, I would look at the book cover, pick it up, contemplate buying it, and then put it down. I imagine there are a thousand copies of The Tender Bar in the Philadelphia region that have my fingerprints all over them.
Eventually, as happens so often in life, I moved on and forgot about it. I bought a house, got engaged, married, had a baby, switched jobs a few times, and eventually bought another house and moved. Recently, I was doing my book shopping on Amazon and, somehow, I came across The Tender Bar. I stopped, once again staring at the little boy on the cover and debating whether or not I should buy it. This time, I did.
Finally, a decision I won’t regret.
I finished it this morning (I was late to work because I refused to put it down) and it has already changed my life and become one of my favorite books ever. It has changed my view — and therefore my relationship — of the past as well as changing my approach to the future. Moreover, it changed me not only as a reader, but as a writer as well. If I ever write anything half as good as what Moehringer put into this book, I will exceed even my own outlandish expectations.
At first, I vowed that I would never forgive myself for waiting a decade to finally buy it and crack it open, because I had lost so much time, but then I realized that, like with my other quake book, I was not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it in 2005. Back then, I was 25, still single, staying in bars until the lights came up, and mortgaging my future to pay for my present. I thought that the answers to all of my questions and the solutions to all of my problems were housed behind bars, never daring to imagine that those questions and problems themselves were back there too.
If you believe in karma, fate, the cosmos, God, or anything beyond simple coincidence, then I was not meant to read that book until now, just as I was not meant to read Rye until long after high school. After all, it wasn’t until recently that I began examining the people that molded me, questioning the decisions I made, worrying that I’ve wasted my potential, and asking ask myself if I’m an alcoholic, all of them themes that are present throughout Moehringer’s memoir.
We all have our own quake books based on who we are, where we’ve been, and what we’ve done, and for a long time I was sure that no book could impact me the way The Catcher in the Rye had. I’m grateful that I was wrong about that.
Even if it took me ten years.
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