How a book changed my life

Can a book change a life?

Our tenth grade English class was deep into The Scarlet Letter, the classic by Nathanial Hawthorne. I was mesmerized not only by the writing and the story, but also by its symbolism. Hester Prynne carried her shame on her chest every day, the bright red letter A which identified her as an adulterer. Things weren’t bad enough in Puritan America without her having to not only hold her beloved Pearl in her arms but to have her shame emblazoned for all to see.

Our teacher, Mrs. Frances Clute, was a friend of my parents She and her husband John had spent time with my parents, and she knew me well.

One day, after class, Mrs. Clute asked me to stay a little longer. As the rest of my classmates dashed out the door for Mr. Kennedy’s World History class, she pulled out a small book from one of her desk drawers.

“This is Catcher in the Rye, Marilyn,” Mrs. Clute told me. “I know how much you love The Scarlet Letter. This is also a book that deals with symbolism. I am giving it to you with your promise not to share it with any of your classmates.”

I was grateful for her trust. Even if I knew nothing about J. D. Salinger’s 1951classic, I knew she trusted me and saw in me the enthusiasm and the intelligence to handle its content and meaning.

I probably read it all that night, the whole story of Holden Caulfield, his depression, his flight from his private school, his trip to New York. I read how he wanted to save his sister Phoebe from any dangers that she would experience. I “got” the meaning of the “catcher in the rye,” the person who wanted to always protect those whom he loved.

I also saw why Mrs. Clute had been furtive in her gift. The book had language that was certainly not in books  usually selected by Keeseville Central School. I now don’t remember if it contained the “F” word, but it had other language and actions that were certainly not broadcast in our small upstate New York town. What made it great was the symbolism, the depth of the story behind the words.

I had already decided that I would be a teacher. After reading Salinger’s classic,  however, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I would spend my college years reading other classics, and then I would go on to teach others to love literature as much as I did.  I followed that dream. 

Looking back,I realize from my older eyes how shallow my understanding and appreciation of great literature was in college.There are classics that I read and hated, Moby Dick probably the most memorable. (I had to read it in one week. It was about a whale.) 

In my first teaching job, I was assigned to share Brave New World, 1984, and Night with juniors and seniors in our school small town near Albany. I realized that not only did they not understand the books’ meanings. Most of them couldn’t even read. I had been a last minute replacement for a man who decided in June to pursue his doctorate, and all the students had signed up to be in “The Cool Class with the Cool Teacher.” I was not the cool teacher.

In the years that followed, I have tried and failed to read other classics, including Les Miserables, Anna Karenina, War and Peace, One Hundred Years of Solitude. I missed the depth in so many books.

It is January, and as I have every year, I have those four books on my “To Read” books. I probably will never get to them, preferring the New York Times best sellers and ones recommended by my bookish friends. But maybe, in honor of Mrs. Clute, I will take my copies of The Scarlet Letter and Catcher in the Rye down from my shelf. While sheltering in place during this pandemic, I will revisit my friendship with Hester Prynne and Holden Caulfield. And, even though I know I have still a great deal to learn about literature and symbolism and the classics, I will accept that Mrs. Clute recognized that I had that spark in me. And for that I will be forever grateful.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York.

Picture Credit: By Mary Hallock Foote – The Scarlet Letter – edition: James R. Osgood & Co,, Public Domain, 

8 thoughts on “How a book changed my life

  1. minocqua560

    Wonderful essay. Your plan to reread the classics reminds me of the after my area exams in my PhD program at Columbia. I had read and read and read everything about my specialty areas, taken extensive notes on note cards, and then regurgitated as much as I could in the exams. What did I do when I finished? Head to the fiction section of the Columbia library and get some of the classics, fiction all, to read. 

    “Be a neighbor to a human being and not to a fence.” Kenyan proverb

  2. Eve Kaufman

    I seem to be in a hole. I’ve started 3 books that sounded good, but can’t get through them, or don’t care to. I have several others on my Kindle, and will start one of them this afternoon. I hate giving up on a book, but think it’s silly to waste my time. Still, I’ve got lots of time.


    I loved this.FYI, The Scarlet Letter was assigned to us in Richfield Springs Central School, but Catcher in the Rye was on the “Forbidden Book List”.  However, our little local library had it and was available to borrow. Of course, I could not use it for a book report. “War and Peace”, another novel available in the library took forever to read but was one of my favorites. I loved reading historical fiction as experienced by Tolstoy’s  characters. Rubie and Rose spoke so little of their experiences in Czarist Russia. I guess it was too painful.BTW, Alan and I got our COVID vaccines. What a relief!Love, Marsha

    Sent from the all new Aol app for iOS

  4. Ruth Kiflawi

    Well said..there is always that special teacher who influences you . Mine was my highschool science teacher, Mr. Knight. As for literature, there are many classic books that I have not been able to get into. I no longer even try and only the past two years began to read books regularly. Now I know I will never get to all the ones I want to read..too little too late. Ruth

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  5. Idalia Pons Velez

    Thank you so much, Marilyn As always, you find a way to spark a smile, when I most need one. ….”(it’s about a whale)”sshhh. This comment reminded me of my niece. Jasmine is 11(?) going on 30, and does that child love to read!! Last summer, she was given an assignment for a book and a report to follow. Well, she saw something on whale migration in Florida. So, she told me she studied that instead, and wrote her report on it. When I look at her, I always get the feeling that something great is going to happen in her life. When she was about 7yr. old, she was reading out loud to me about snakes. She said I needed to know these things because I lived in Florida and there are snakes here. Then she stopped and asked…”Are you listening, Titi? I know you can hear me, but are you listening to what I’m saying because it’s very important.” Every time I look at my RBG doll, I see her. She wears those glasses and always carries a book with her. BTW,…..I’m sure some of those kids remember you as a “cool” teacher!! TFS… Idalia



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