The good-bad books that changed my life

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - OPINION - MAR­GARET WENTE OPINION

I’m em­bar­rassed that I loved them so much. But they had their virtues

Dur­ing the long, hot sum­mers of my youth, other kids ran around and splashed in swim­ming pools. I holed up in my room and read. Some of what I read had an em­bar­rass­ingly pro­found in­flu­ence on my life. From age 11 un­til 15, for ex­am­ple, my favourite book in the world was Gone with the Wind. By the time my bat­tered copy fell apart I had read it 27 times. “Scar­lett O’Hara was not beau­ti­ful, but men sel­dom re­al­ized it when caught by her charm as the Tar­leton twins were,” it be­gins. I knew that line by heart, along with many oth­ers. I knew that soon the Tar­leton twins would be dead, along with the glo­ri­ous Old South, and that Scar­lett would be strug­gling for sur­vival in a blasted, un­for­giv­ing world where she had no one to rely on but her­self. Scar­lett was a thor­oughly mod­ern hero­ine – re­source­ful and cun­ning, es­sen­tially good, but also self­ish, un­scrupu­lous and mean. She let noth­ing get in her way, ex­cept for her mis­be­got­ten sen­ti­ment for that mis­er­able loser, Ash­ley Wilkes. One day – I must have been around 12 – I came to the fa­mil­iar scene where Scar­lett and Rhett have a drunken fight and he car­ries her up the stairs. This is fol­lowed in the book by a sug­ges­tive white space. The story cuts to the next morn­ing, when Scar­lett wakes up all re­laxed and happy. I knew the scene well, but this time it struck me like a thun­der­bolt: Some­thing un­speak­ably in­ter­est­ing hap­pened in that white space. And sud­denly I knew what it was. In that mo­ment, I moved from in­no­cence to ex­pe­ri­ence. I dis­cov­ered grown-up sex. A book such as Gone with the Wind couldn’t be pub­lished to­day, of course. Its por­trait of the Old South is hope­lessly air­brushed, and its de­pic­tions of happy black slaves are cringe­wor­thy, if not down­right racist. Still, it does a de­cent job of ex­plain­ing why the South was doomed. It also in­tro­duced me to the ex­traor­di­nary erotic po­ten­tial of white spa­ces – highly un­der­rated, in my view. The books you read when you’re young can in­flu­ence you for life. Usu­ally th­ese are not the ones you read in school. Usu­ally they’re the good-bad books – cheesy tear­jerk­ers with im­prob­a­ble plots and lots of ac­tion. They’re the kind of books that crit­ics hate and or­di­nary peo­ple de­vour. The best good-bad books throw in a tur­bu­lent back­drop that al­lows you to ab­sorb a bit of his­tory with­out re­ally try­ing. I’ve picked up a lot of his­tory this way. For ex­am­ple, un­til fairly late in life, every­thing I knew about Israel was what I’d learned from Ex­o­dus. I adored that book. I read it at least a dozen times. Ex­o­dus turned me into a ra­bid fan of Israel. It taught me that Israel was full of heroic free­dom fight­ers who just wanted peace. God gave this land to them (as the theme song from the movie went). The Jews were plucky un­der­dogs in a big, mean world. The Arabs were craven and cruel. Of course this pic­ture was highly ro­man­ti­cized (as well as racist). The book and movie were es­sen­tially a Zion­ist ver­sion of mod­ern Jewish his­tory, and they shaped Amer­i­can at­ti­tudes to­ward Israel – as well as mine – for a gen­er­a­tion. Even­tu­ally I learned that Israel, as with every other coun­try, is very far from per­fect. It has its vil­lains and its share of sins. But it has sur­vived in a tough neigh­bour­hood, and it still faces en­e­mies who don’t be­lieve in its right to ex­ist. Ex­o­dus also in­tro­duced me to the re­al­i­ties of the Holo­caust, which at that time wasn’t taught in high school. That started me on a pro­found jour­ney from in­no­cence to ex­pe­ri­ence. I’ve saved the most em­bar­rass­ing con­fes­sion for last. Yes, I read Ayn Rand’s At­las Shrugged – all 1,074 pages of it. Sev­eral times. It turned me into an in­suf­fer­able lit­tle Ob­jec­tivist. But I had lots of com­pany. Thou­sands, per­haps mil­lions, of teenagers have been in­spired by this turgid lib­er­tar­ian rant. Even Alan Greenspan, the for­mer cen­tral banker, was an Ayn Rand acolyte. The book’s mes­sage is that self­ish­ness is good, gov­ern­ment is bad and the evil, weak par­a­sites of the world are suck­ing the lifeblood of the no­ble pro­duc­ers. Or some­thing like that. It can also be read as a quasi-philo­soph­i­cal jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for re­gard­ing your par­ents as com­plete sell­outs and de­spi­ca­ble hu­man be­ings – al­ways a great mes­sage when you’re 15. Plus, every few hun­dred pages, the hero­ine, Dagny Tag­gart, gets to have hot sex with a hand­some, bril­liant man. I didn’t stay an Ob­jec­tivist for long. I re­al­ized the world just wasn’t that sim­ple. (And nei­ther were my par­ents.) But I still have my tat­tered copy of that book with its in­cred­i­bly tiny type – a re­minder of the days when I tried to puz­zle out the world as best I could, one dog-eared pa­per­back at a time. Im­per­fect as they are, I loved th­ese books. And they’ll stay with me for­ever.

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