The Book That Changed My World
The title of this article is a reference to a recent Twitter “hash-tag” where users listed a book, or the many books, that had a profound impact on their lives. As the night wore on, and the tag gained recognition, thousands of tweeted titles were shared, critiqued, commented upon, and remembered – usually with a, “Oh man, I almost forgot about that one!” What is particularly charming about about Twitter memes such as this, is that you slowly begin to develop a deeper understanding for the people you’ve met and made friends with online. As their favorite books stream before your eyes, you glean subtle insights into their personalities and character that are often more revealing than several months of casual conversation could ever be. But then again, this is one of the wonders of books as well – that in the midst of storytelling comes a deeper understanding of others. The dream becomes a lesson, and the lesson becomes a guide for your own life and relations to others.
There have been many books in my life that have changed me in some way, either profoundly by actively promoting an immediate change in my behavior, or as incidentally as introducing me to a new spot on the world map. I could fill a volume listing just the titles of either group alone. But there is one particular book that I can honestly say was the single greatest influence on my life: a tiny volume nearly lost to the mists of time called “Swamp Cat” by Jim Kjelgaard. It was the first novel that I ever read, and it set me on a path I hope to travel for the rest of my days.
I started elementary school at age six and, like many children, was more than a little intimidated at being introduced into an environment where I was surrounded by strangers an no longer the primary recipient of adult attention. On my first day of school, I met my teacher, Mrs. Smith, who immediately struck me as one of the most terrifying women on the planet. She was like the Wicked Witch of the East, small and angry, and supremely capable of sneaking up on you when you were least aware. She had a knack for leveling soul crushing accusations of misbehavior that weren’t always based on reality. As a Catholic child I had already been well schooled in the concept of guilt, but Mrs. Smith instilled in me a fear of torture and punishment that was near biblical in scope. She literally haunted my dreams as a child, keeping me continually on edge and fearful of her displeasure.
Thankfully though, my introduction to elementary school also came with a perk I would soon discover was a gift from the gods: a library card. On our first trip to the library I remember being impressed somewhat by the number of books available, I was informed, for free (!). I listened dutifully to the instructions on how to use the card catalog (yawn), how to check out a book, and the expectations for return or renewal lest inconceivably large “late fees” be assessed. [At the time, such late fees amounted to something like a nickel a week, which to a six year-old, was an astronomical amount.] I looked around the library a bit that day, but didn’t get anything as we were still be shepherded around to meet the other teachers, find our lockers, and get our seats in the classrooms.
It wasn’t until some months later, on a day when the rain came to keep us indoors instead of at recess, that Mrs. Smith, in a stunning show of grace, allowed some of us to go to the library rather than do jumping jacks in the classroom. I jumped at the chance, and before too long found myself staring down an eight foot tall shelf of books that were unlike any I had seen. They were nothing at all like the books we’d been given at home – 20 page Walt Disney children’s books that had since been converted into modern art masterpieces by a baby sister obsessed with the stylistic properties of permanent magic markers. Books that bored a three year-old, in other words. These book were thick, with hundreds of pages and vibrant covers that tugged at the imagination. There were few that had any pictures at all, and I was awed, and somewhat intimidated, by the solid columns of words before me. I immediately wondered what it would be like to read nothing such a book, but something told me that I still needed the comfort of images to steer me through a story so long. I picked up a few more from the shelves, almost all chosen on the strength of the cover alone.
“Swamp Cat,” the one I finally settled on, had a simple cover, of a man with a rifle standing in front of a shack in a swamp, with a black cat curled about his legs. The jacket flap told me that this was an adventure story, a tale of a Frosty the swamp cat, who had been abandoned along with his brothers and sisters as kittens by the wicked Luke Trull, who had taken payment from Frosty’s former owners for promising to find the kittens a new home. Instead, Luke dropped the cats in the woods, and Frosty had been forced to learn how to fend for himself. One day, though, he is attacked by an owl and rescued by the young Andy Gates, a trapper seeking to establish a muskrat colony that would supply his livelihood in furs. Luke Trull, jealous of Andy’s initiative, continually spies on the trapper and his newfound feline friend, and trouble lurks over the horizon.
Wanting to find out just what that trouble would be, I checked the book out. Later that night, I sat on the couch and cracked the cover on my first real novel. It was a simple story, true, but unlike all the other books I had read up to that point, it told the story rather than showing it. It created a place in my imagination as real as the bayous I would later visit in life, and it did it so well that my impressions of the real were colored by the fiction – I knew the swamps before I ever saw them. The characters seemed as real to me as the members of my own family, and while the adventures they experienced were far beyond my realm of possibility, there was a truth in them that made me believe they were possible. I devoured the book, finishing it in something like three days, and when I turned the last page, I had become a completely different person.
I would return to the library many more times before that first year of school would end. The journey that began with a simple book about a cat in a swamp has led me through some of the more defining moments of my life. Books have been a constant companion, feeding my soul with a love like no other. They have brought me comfort in times of loneliness, introduced me to places both real and imagined I long to visit, and taught me to think ideas that have bettered my self. Thank you, “Swamp Cat” for the gift of reading you bestowed upon me. I could not have become the man I am today if it weren’t for your existence.