When author Toni Morrison died recently, it reminded me of my interview with former first lady Laura Bush in 2004 when she was campaigning in Denver with her husband, George W. Bush.
I was upset that I hadn’t gotten through all my questions by the time the interview ended. I complained afterward that the first lady filibustered when I asked her why she picked Morrison’s “Beloved” as a favorite book instead of the author’s “The Bluest Eye.”
An editor set me straight. My mention of Morrison and those two novels signaled I was a book lover. Laura Bush was a book lover. She wasn’t going to give me a sound bite.
And, oh, how I love books.
Their words grip us, change us, mold us. Books make us laugh and cry -- sometimes at the same time. They make friends out of strangers sitting side by side in lawn chairs at beach resorts: “‘The Book Thief’? Oh, I just finished it. Bring some Kleenex with you down to the pool.”
Morrison died Aug. 5 at the age of 88. She was the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. I read “The Bluest Eye,” her first novel, shortly after it debuted in 1970. I probably was in seventh grade.
I feel as if I’ve loved books forever. Same with my family. The Bartels kids were the first ones on our school bus and the last ones off and we read books to and from as the bus stopped at farm after farm on the winding Timber Road.
We devoured Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Ramona Quimby, S.E. Hinton, the All-of-a-Kind Family series, Beverly Cleary and more. I’ve read and reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder books more than 100 times. A few years later, my younger sisters got hooked on Judy Blume’s novels.
I would go through phases. I’d read one Leon Uris novel, and then have to read the rest of his work. Stephen King’s “Carrie” and Avery Corman’s “Kramer vs. Kramer” were hit movies, but my first introduction to them were as great books.
Everyone I babysat for owned Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. That’s how I first read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I then repeatedly checked the book out of my hometown and high school libraries. I did the same at my first reporting job, in Gallup, New Mexico.
One day when I walked in to look for more books to read, the librarian approached me. She said she had something for me. It was a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which came in a box of books someone had donated to the Gallup library.
Inside, she had written: “To Lynn, who knows a special book! Octavia Fellin, March 23, 1983.” I turned the page. Copyright 1960 by Harper Lee.
My younger sister Caroline, who received a master’s degree from Fordham University in modern British and American literature, can recite entire paragraphs of the book.
“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between,” she begins. “Boo was our neighbor … ”
My parents allowed the younger girls to order $5 worth of books each month from the Scholastic catalog. Sometimes Caroline negotiated with sisters Susan and Brigid to use their money.
“Each month when that box was delivered to our classrooms and the teacher handed me my stack of books, it always felt like Christmas morning,” she recently recalled. She’s a librarian at a private school in the Bronx, and is in charge of the summer school program.
When I moved in April from a four-bedroom house to a one-bedroom condo, I struggled over what to do with all my books. I made piles: Keep. Toss. Give away.
I threw out most of the self-help books. I knew from experience they didn’t work.
In the Keep pile I placed the books that retired journalist John Masterman sent me after he judged the National Society of Newspaper Columnists contest. I was a columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune and he awarded me first place for humor writing.
“This woman, while not dangerous, clearly marches to a different keyboard,” he wrote in the judge’s notes.
Masterman, the host of Kansas City Public Television’s “Week in Review,” was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was convinced I had a book in me. His offerings, such as Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains,” were meant to inspire.
John told me that the book “Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?” would deepen my love of political writing and he was right.
“From the first moment I saw the Texas Legislature, I adored it,” the journalism legend wrote about the opening day of the 1971 session.
“I walked onto the floor of the Texas House, saw one ol’ boy digging another in the ribs with his elbow, wink and announce, ‘Hey boy! Yew should see what Ah found mahself last night! An’ she don’t talk, neither’!"
Ivins poked fun of colleagues whose coverage went something like this: “House Bill 327 was passed out of subcommittee by unanimous vote on Tuesday.”
In the Keep pile I also put Annie Prioux’s “The Shipping News.” I struggled to get into that book, but once I did, I was hooked. The knots, Quoyle, the outhouse that blew away and what it symbolized, all made for an amazing book deserving of the Pulitzer it received. The movie, however, was a bust.
Jeannette Walls’ “Half Broke Horses” was so good that when I finished it I immediately reread the whole thing.
I finished Anthony Doerr’s “All the Light We Cannot See” in 2015 on a plane ride from Denver to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to see my dad when he was in the hospital. I gave it to him and he marveled at the story of, per one description, “the blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.”
Dad died that March and a month later, when Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I cried. I could still picture Dad sitting up in his bed at the VA hospital, waving the book.
My nephew James and I cannot talk about the death of the dog Almondine in “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” without completely losing it. Author David Wroblewski lives in Colorado.
When I interviewed Laura Bush, she said her daughters, Barbara and Jenna, liked “The Bluest Eye” over “Beloved,” just as I did. She explained that she took a course in which a professor would take apart a book for six weeks at a time.
“One of the ones she did was ‘Beloved.’ We read it together and talked about it. I felt like I knew it. When you've been in a course and you study a book, I think you get a special appreciation and understanding,” she said.
Let’s end this with words from the immortal author Dr. Seuss: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
Lynn Bartels can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org