The book “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls was published in 2005. Photo from tigertimes.com.
During my sophomore year of high school, I took a creative writing class. Our teacher gave us an excerpt of the first chapter of a book to read as an example of how to hook a reader in.
“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
That first line had definitely hooked me in. We only read a few more paragraphs, but I noted the title, “The Glass Castle,” so I could read it during the summer.
When I was younger, I had no problem focusing and reading as many books as I could ever want. I completed the “Harry Potter” series before middle school. I could read multiple books in a week. I competed with another student in the fourth grade to have read the most books in a year; we each read over 70 books.
Then high school came along and so did more work, responsibilities and a greater access to streaming Netflix and Hulu. Reading took a backseat. I just couldn’t focus on a book unless I knew that I had to read it, and soon, the only books I was reading during the school year were those assigned to me. I always finished them as well. While other kids were on SparkNotes or CliffsNotes, I was actually reading every single page of “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Hamlet.”
This all meant that I devoted my summers to reading as much as possible. I looked forward to both my summer reading for school and the personal reading that I just couldn’t manage during the majority of the year. So, that following summer, I read “The Glass Castle,” a memoir by Jeannette Walls and it instantly became one of my favorite books.
I also learned that I’d become much more interested in biographies and memoirs than fiction books. I had outgrown the young adult books I’d devoured in middle school, but a couple of hundred pages in which someone detailed their own life was desirable. There was something about someone telling their own story that felt both intimate and exciting.
Reading memoirs and biographies is part of what sparked my interest for reporting. The idea that everyone has a really interesting story to tell, even if they don’t know it, made me lean towards profile riding. It shouldn’t have been surprising considering that I spent a great deal of my time on YouTube watching interviews. A biography just feels like a really long, well-written profile and a memoir just gives that an even more personal touch.
I would be lying if it didn’t also make me think about writing my own memoir, though I’d imagine I have a lot more time and life to live before I get around to that.
Walls wrote of a life that I couldn’t relate to. She grew up with multiple siblings poverty-stricken to eccentric and dysfunctional parents with whom she moved around various states in the West and South. Her upbringing was about as far from traditional as I could have imagined at the time and being much older than me, she grew up in a completely different time.
Still, the way she wrote about her family and her own internal thoughts allowed me to realize that maybe we aren’t as different as it would seem on paper. Her own characterization of herself and her family made me relate to them all in some ways, or at least become deeply intrigued by them.
I read it again in my senior year of high school when it was assigned reading and I loved it just as much as I did the first time, especially when given a real excuse to analyze it.
Since falling in love with “The Glass Castle,” I’ve read many more biographies and memoirs that I’d consider some of my favorite books, including “Night” by Elie Wiesel, “Fosse” by Sam Wasson, “Becoming” by Michelle Obama, “What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship & Love” by Carole Radziwill and “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi.
Through a mixture of assigned readings and the little time I devote to reading for my own personal pleasure, I rarely read fiction anymore. However, give me some good memoirs and I feel like a kid again, racing to read as many as I can. It may take me more time and I may read a lot less, but I still love reading just as much as I did when I was 10, and I owe that in part to Jeannette Walls and all the authors of the memoirs and biographies I read that followed.