What is the most important book you’ve ever read?
by Charlie Leck
It is Sunday morning, the sun is still low and breaking through the shades and shadows of the green tree-tops, a mug of hot coffee is at hand and the computer keyboard draws me to it because I want to write – and I don’t give a damn if anyone thinks I shouldn’t.
I awoke during the night thinking of Brenda Ueland.
“It was Brenda Ueland!”
I’d sat up in bed, startled, and I shouted it out. Fortunately my wife was off in Toronto for the weekend and wasn’t there to be frightened by me. Only the dog, sprawled in his bed across the room from me, lifted his head in curiousness and then lowered it again in disinterest.
Someone had asked me, during the afternoon on Saturday, to declare to him the most important book I had ever read. I have often been asked that question by friends and associates. I don’t know why people find it such a fascinating topic of conversation.
“I would like to think about that,” I said to this fellow at the Farmers Market yesterday.
“No, no,” he replied to my request for thinking time, “I want to hear it off the top of your head.”
It was like a challenge he’d thrown at me; you know, the big dare or double dare was out there and demanded some response. I shouldn’t have, but I bit!
“Okay,” said I, “then I’ll say it is Howard Zinn’s book, A People’s History of the United States.”
There was a long, silent pause and I felt his consternation and condemnation.
“Never heard of it!”
He’s a bookish, intellectual fellow who likes to come around when I’m at the Market, to chat about his latest read. He’d expected something more of an answer out of me.
“Not Dickens? Or, Tolstoy, Melville, Hugo, Dostoyevsky – or even Bellow?”
It had begun to rain and we were both trying to squeeze under the big umbrella that covered the table from which we marketed our butchered lamb to customers there at the Farmer’s Market. The rain was blowing somewhat sideways and we were both getting wet.
I raised my defense of Zinn, telling the fellow how much “true” history I’d learned about my nation and I explained how carefully the author had sourced all the “new facts” he laid before me.
The rain became too much for him and he deserted me with a disappointed wave of his arm and hand. He moved off to the vendor just to the east of our booth because they had a large tent under which he could find shelter.
I was left alone and wondering. Perhaps my answer should have indeed been Charles Dickens. Even James Joyce or Henry James would have shown me to be more of an intellectual.
I drifted off last night, thinking about it. I could imagine the guy going back to the University and talking about me in one of his lectures, chuckling at my limited imagination and narrowness of interest.
“Homer!” That was my last conscious thought of the evening. That would have been a popular and acceptable answer.
I must have continued to think about the matter as I slept; for it was nearly three o’clock when I awakened and pounced up and called out Brenda Ueland’s name.
I was introduced to the extraordinary woman many, many years ago, when I was a young man. A friend, who told her who I was, explained to her that I enjoyed writing poetry and that, he thought, I was damned good. I remember how excited she got and she shook with happiness and said all kinds of encouraging things to me.
From the public library I got her book, If You Want to Write, shortly after that meeting and happily read it. I managed to find, in a used book store, my own copy and it became my “bible” for quite some time. I often found myself going back to it again and again. It gave me courage – encouraged me – and freed me up to be myself.
Everyone who teaches writing, and all those who just want to write, should read Brenda Ueland’s book and encourage others to read it. It is because of this wonderful woman that I write without fear or inhibition. She gave me an extraordinary gift that has lasted me for so many, many years. Hers must be the most important book I’ve ever read.
“The creative power and imagination is in everyone and so is the need to express it, i.e., to share it with others. But what happens to it?
“It is very tender and sensitive, and it is usually drummed out of people early in life by criticism (so called ‘helpful criticism’ is often the worst kind), by teasing, jeering, rules, prissy teachers, critics and all those unloving people who forget that the letter killeth and the spirit giveth life.” [Brenda Ueland: If You Want to Write]
“A Postscript: At a time when I was writing the book, Carl Sandburg, an old friend, was at our house. Sometimes, looking out at Lake Calhoun in the wild November evening, he would begin to thunder in his mighty voice (so much like Isaiah’s, I used to think) about the grey waves, the North wind, the new moon, the gunmetal sky.
“He liked the book. He said: ‘That is the best book ever written about how to write.’” [Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, in the preface to the second edition, February, 1983]
It is because of Brenda Ueland that I sit here on this beautiful morning, with the sun splashing in through the windows, writing.