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Visited the sister and her family in DC last week. Thought I could stick it out on campus and get ahead of the work load for once, but a few days in, I found myself seeking the last one-way rental car out town, braving the public bus to Bellefonte, and getting the hellllll out of here.

It’s strange that I can go to my sister’s and mindlessly play, watch Sponge Bob, and wrestle with the dog for hours on end, but am completely unable to do so in my own apartment. Most of the week was spent on Molly, or Hurricane Molly as we often call her, at six-years-old she is teaching herself to read and driving her mother crazy.

Of course that craziness was transferred to me before I could even get in a morning cup of coffee. Molly is there, in front of the coffee pot, demanding to show me the latest book she learned to navigate. The afternoon consisted of at least a half hour of Molly insisting on flipping through flash-cards and getting mad at me when she could not sound out certain words correctly. She yelled at me that I was “changing the rules” because she could not figure out when to use a hard or soft “th” sound. I realized for the first time how damn hard it must be for foreigners to learn English.

Every night with Molly was a negotiation of how many books I would read in accordance to how long I could get her to brush her teeth. I’m not her mother, I’m not opposed to bribes. We settled on a short book that she would read and two longer books that I would read. Normally Dr. Seuss, she thinks it’s hilarious the way I fly through the books (she doesn’t realize I have them mostly memorized).

We’re all pretty clueless where Molly has gotten this drive to read. She ferocious about it, really. She is quick to learn and beats herself up over her mistakes. This is odd for a kindergartener whose own class is just learning their ABCs.

My sister is trying to reel her in and I’m ambivalent about the process. We’re first generation Americans. Our grandfather lived during a time in Ireland when the idea of just a proper education, forget a higher one, was a pipe dream for many. My great-grandfather, after the laws changed allowed advanced degrees for the Irish, went on to write a mathematical textbook and a history of Ireland, his brother translated Alice in Wonderland into Gaelic and was published (previously against the law in the country), and my grandfather became an engineer. All spoke more than 9 languages between them.

Education was a treasure, an honor, a gift, and a duty if you had the least bit of access to it. I’m loathed to read school work over spring break, but my niece is determined to read anything she can get her hands on, including the National Geographic where she only picked out a few words. A hundred years ago, a flash in the pan of time really, was a whole other world for the Irish, one of neglect, denial, and state mandated ignorance. So I suppose if Molly wants to read the contents of the known universe, we should let her be, and be thankful for it. She certainly comes by it honestly.

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Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

I can not begin to tell you how much I hate this book. I also can not adequately describe in words how dirty and stupid I feel for having read this book. I thought it was self-aggrandizing, indulgent, shallow, and fraudulent trash. But I know a cadre of people, both male and female, who feel like this novel has changed their lives, and I can say the same as well, only that I feel somehow feel it has cheapened my existence. If I were trapped on a deserted island with only that book to read, I would either take my chances swimming to civilization or just let myself babble merrily into insanity. I truly and dearly dislike this book that much.

So why the diametrically opposed experiences? How is it that a book has such a powerful and inspiring affect on some people and an equally powerful negative affect on others?

I think back to the books that truly blew my mind and continue to have the same emotional draw on me as they did when I first read them. You know these experiences. You know these books. While you are under their spell, you can not remove the book from your hand. It’s like falling in love: you become distracted, dreamy, obsessive, and you can think of nothing else. You finish the book and somehow the sky is more blue, or the grass is less green. Birds chirping now sound threatening. You feel less alone in the world or you feel completely exposed. That book has somehow managed to change you molecularly. You are literally transformed and you feel as though nothing is ever going to be the same for you ever again because you happened to have read those words by that author.

If you have never had the sensation I have described above, then I sincerely hope you do before you leave this plane of existence, because I can think of nothing more profoundly sad than not experiencing the joy of a great novel.

The books that gave me the greatest trans-formative experience were all read around the same age: 14. I don’t know what it was about that summer, but to say my head was buried in a book was sincerely an understatement. I did nothing else that summer except work a part-time job 15 hours a week (pure torture as I thought about my novels patiently waiting for me back at home) and read. And I still have a copy of those three novels. I manage to pull them out once every few years and re-read them as obsessively as I did when I was a teen. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Trinity by Leon Uris, and Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The Fountainhead opened my eyes to a sense of spiritualism outside the confines of a figurehead god and organized religion. It filled a very deep hole I had always felt in my disbelief of Christianity and religion as a whole. It pains me to this day any time I hear of someone reading it and referring to it as a bore.

Being from an insanely Irish family, I was raised with the stories of Grandpa back on the Old Sod and immersed in the politics of Ireland since birth, but it wasn’t until I read Trinity by Leon Uris that any of that made sense. The history, the culture, the passion for justice all came together for me in reading this book. Is it a great novel? No, but it helped me greatly to understand what is was to be Irish and to put family history into context.

Crime and Punishment. What is there to say except a world of words? The awakening of moral consciousness in a human being, does it get any more profound? Just at the time I was “coming out of the closet” as an atheist the combination of this book and The Fountainhead made me realize that I was my own force for good or evil. Whatever the end game of this existence may be, the choice is mine what I make of this life.

There are other minor players as well, The Universe and the Tea Cup inspired in me a love of mathematics and science beyond the chore of computation. I remember how utterly moved and heartbroken I was when reading Atonement. How much I loved the gorgeous prose and wonderful detachment when reading The Secret History (and also how I have yet to speak to friend in almost a year when he dismissed the book as a “pot boiler”).

And any one of these books have been equally dismissed or look over by dear friends whose opinions I value. So again, I ask why so vast the difference of opinion? Did these books actually change me or just awaken something that was there all along? Is a “good book” then really only preaching to a proverbial choir? Is there a chemistry between a reader and an author that must exist prior reading, like that of romantic relationship? Is what makes a novel “great”? Is it just happenstance or is it fate?

Just why do I hate Eat, Pray Love et al with so much gusto?