Life Lessons in Literature

Where were you when the family car broke down, when you first heard about oral sex, when you chose a political party? More importantly, what were you reading? Margaret Berry shares the books that made the woman.

Book: The Holy Bible
Lesson: Don’t touch your sister’s stuff

My family is not religious. There are no bible stories at bedtime, no prayers before bed. My sister Raina’s bible was given to her at birth. To me, it is simply a giant, gilt-edged book with gold letters on the cover. It is shiny and heavy, and therefore compelling. At age two, I toddle into Raina’s room and yank a few pages out. Raina is eight, and she is displeased. The Holy Bible has driven us apart. My sister decides that she needs some baby-free space. From then on, it is a house rule that I am not allowed in Raina’s room unless she invites me.

Over the years, Raina teaches me to swim by bribing me with Ritz crackers, and holds on to the back of my bike as I wobble up the street, but she never feels particularly inclined to invite me into her room. When she moves out about a decade later, her bigger, sunnier room is passed on to me. I enter with an awed silence. I have no idea what it looks like.

Book: Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell
Lesson: Don’t eat the red ones

This book got me thinking about how I would survive if I ended up in the wild fending for myself. Thus began the gathering phase of my childhood. I took all of the cereal bowls; filled them with pyracantha berries, crab apples, and mud pies; then hid them in the backyard. Mom found a bowl full of poisonous plants and screeched.

‘Have you been eating these?!’

‘No. I’m saving them.’

‘For what?’

‘For later.’

‘Don’t eat these.’


Mom bought a new set of bowls. I began to collect oleander blossoms.

Book: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Lesson: Check the oil

We take a trip to our local Tower of Books where I pick A Little Princess off the shelf. The cover is pink (like my room), and has an illustration of a small girl with long brown hair. I read it twenty-one times, and the cover falls off. When mom decides we need a road trip after my Dad dies, I pack it in my box of books. She loads my sister and me into a big van with a mattress in the back, and we sweat through most of the western states. My sister applies headphones, and I read a girl-shaped dent into the mattress.

The Grand Canyon is 121 degrees in the shade. Our insufferable tour guide tells a joke about a man who rides his horse off a cliff, and I throw up over the side of the tram. The van conks on our way home. We’re stranded in Seligman, Arizona, and Mom makes arrangements to fly back to California. She refuses to ship the huge box of books I’ve accumulated by then, insisting that I leave them with the granddaughter of the local motel owner. I pass my precious books to her one by one, explaining each plot, some character summary. She blinks at me, obviously bored. ‘Quite a bookworm, aren’cha?’ I shove the box at her and walk back to our room.

Book: Valley of the Horses, by Jean M. Auel
Lesson: It’s not the message, it’s the medium

Mom and I begin reading Valley of the Horses at the same time. She reads ahead of me and decides that some of the content is ‘not age-appropriate.’ She is correct, as I learn after sneaking into her room and reading her copy in snippets while she’s running errands. A few weeks later, I get to thinking.

‘How do gay guys have sex, mom?’

She inhales, exhales, looks at me in the rear view mirror.

‘Well. I’m very uncomfortable telling you this.’

She looks back at the road, perhaps waiting for me to withdraw the question. I remain expectant.

‘Shit. OK, they say that if you’re old enough to ask the question, you’re old enough to know the answer.’


‘Gay men have sex in the butt, Margaret.’


That night, I find the book on my pillow. I mark the good pages and hide it under my bed.

Book: Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin
Lesson: Sex sells

My high school English teacher asks us to present our favorite book to the class, and says she’ll have our peers grade our work. I choose Miss Manners Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, knowing that I’ll be mocked. But this book fascinates me. I decide to present it as I see it, as an anthropology book about us: our customs, preferences, and cultural quirks. I take the podium, ready to explain how weird etiquette is, how odd it is that we have entire books to tell us how to avoid offending other people.

The boys in the classroom are, not surprisingly, ignoring me. Amy Grimshaw has forgotten to cross her ankles. Each of the boys has his head tilted slightly to the right so as to overcome the minor obstacle of Amy’s cheerleading skirt. I receive an A.

Book: Backlash by Susan Faludi
Lessons: I am not a Republican

Eric asks if I can drop off my notes, and when I get there he asks if I want some wine. I do. He wants to talk politics. He’s a Republican. Really? I am too. Do I want more wine? I do. He says that if people want to have kids, someone should be prepared to stay home and take care of them. I agree. He settles in next to me on the couch and pours more wine. And if men make more money, he says, doesn’t it just make sense that the women should be the ones taking care of the kids?

Well, I suppose it does… But if women were getting equal pay for equal work, then couldn’t you choose the parent best suited to caring for the kid? I mean, there are a lot of really nurturing men out there. I mean, I’ve met some real bitches who have no business being full-time moms. And shouldn’t the right-wing female proselytizers, who are spending well more than eight hours a day preaching that women should be staying home with the kids, just take their own advice and leave the rest of us out of it? And doesn’t he want to marry a woman who’s smart and capable enough to make just as much as he is? And in a time when engineering jobs are among the most lucrative, did he ever have a toy that said ‘Math is hard!’ and giggled? And did he ever have an insipid, anachronistic band teacher who told him that he should play the flute because his hands were just too darn small for the saxophone? Well, did he? Did he?

Book: Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak
Lesson: I want a family

In college, I date a man who has a beautiful son. I give the baby a bath before bedtime, and then read to him as he falls asleep. There are a few pages in the middle of Where the Wild Things Are that have no words, just illustrations of wild things cavorting about with their terrible claws and terrible teeth. James is half asleep when we get to this part, but he lifts his head a few inches and points at the monster that’s jumping and growling beneath the moon. He taps the drawing and whispers, ‘He try to get the moon.’