Eight(ish) miraculous books
Taking place every year on the 25th of Kislev, Hanukkah commemorates the story of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Syrian despot Antiochus, who made observance of Judaism a capital offense, regularly slaughtered Jews and made it a point to desecrate the Temple.
A man named Mattathias and his sons formed a band of rebels called the Maccabees. After three years of fighting, they eventually ousted the Syrians.
When they saw the state of the Temple, the warriors openly wept and went about ritually cleaning it for use again. Tradition tells us there was enough oil to light the great Menorah for one night. Miraculously, it lasted eight days — enough time to manufacture more ritual oil. In celebration (and because of the holiday’s proximity to a larger American holiday), the holiday has grown in prominence.
We eat latkes, spin dreidels and put our menorah in the windows, quietly shining amid the more conspicuous holiday lights of our neighbors.
In honor of Hanukkah, it seemed fitting to address miracles, specifically the miracle of the right book, just as it is needed. Wouldn’t you consider it miraculous when the formation of a thought in a stranger’s head is written down, then survives the publishing process to be made into a book, which gets purchased by your local library, which a friendly librarian delivers to your hands at the right time to resonate with the deepest needs of your current life? Well, now. I certainly would.
With that in mind, I decided to visit books that were a miracle in my life. I’ve read a lot, even before I became a professional bookslinger, so there were oodles to choose from. This listing is not necessarily the best book ever written on a theme or a subject (though most are quite good), but they were miracles in that they came at just the right time in my life and made a lasting impact.
"Little House on the Prairie" by Laura Ingalls Wilder: Galvanized me as a reader with a focus on a spunky girl my age who liked to be out in nature; plus, I watched this show often with my beloved grandparents. I also think this was the start of my love of series fiction.
"Savage Inequalities" by Jonathan Kozol: I read this in college, and it changed the course of my studies and my career interests. (See also: "The Measure of our Success," by Marian Wright Edelman who helped with my career path, but also with the raising of my own children later in life. When people compliment me on having great kids, this is the book I want to hand them.)
"Our Bodies, Ourselves": Everything I ever wanted to know about my body — and how the patriarchy would work to control it — but was afraid to ask.
I include the "Hip Mama Survival Guide" (which the library sadly doesn’t own) because Ariel Gore writes about motherhood, and she saved me when I was floundering and trying to figure out how to do parenthood differently from how it was done to me. I’m still grateful to her.
"Outlander" by Diana Gabaldon was the first “real” book I read after spending several years reading sociology texts, and pregnancy, childbirth, nursing and parenting books. It was a much needed respite after all the wee people who needed me were kissed and tucked into bed.
Protagonists Jamie and Claire became the cause of many of sleepless night, sometimes in tandem with a nursing a baby. However, loving this book taught me it was okay to take care of myself when I needed it and that self-care might be as simple as a tale, well-told, in a quiet moment.
"The Big Orange Splot" by Daniel Pinkwater: Mr. Plumbean lived on a neat street … until the big orange splot came along. This simple children’s book (along with anything Mr. Rogers has ever said) gave me a roadmap for raising kids. Search for your true self, love who you turn out to be and gently help those around you feel comfortable finding themselves, too.
"Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life" by Amy Krouse Rosenthal: I wrote about this book before, so I won’t go on about it. But this book opened a path for me when I really needed it, and I hold Rosenthal in my heart daily.
"Heating and Cooling" by Beth Ann Fennelly: Fifty-two finely tuned micro-memoirs, which is about all I have time for some days. Fennelly writes prose as poetry. Each memoir, whether one sentence or a few pages, packs a punch. Sneaking peeks into her beautiful brain has affirmed my own midlife reality, as well as the journey it took to get here.
(OK, if you were counting, that’s actually nine books. But I decided I could give you nine books because there are nine candles in the hanukiah, as the shamash “helper” makes nine.)
Dear readers, my holiday wish for you is that you’ll always find the books that are a light at your darkest times, just like the winter holidays themselves. Happy reading.
-Polli Kenn is the readers’ services coordinator at the Lawrence Public Library.