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Dawn Miller: Thinking of 'books I have loved'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some weeks ago, retired Gazette staff writer Susan Williams invited readers to share their favorite books -- titles and authors who have had special meaning or endurance.

Readers responded, of course, always pleasantly reminding me of the depth and breadth of Gazette readers' intellectual pursuits. I expected great works, people wrestling with big problems and ideas. We got those. But I was also touched at humbler works and less deified authors who hold honorable shelf space in readers' minds.

Preparing another installment of "Books I have Loved" for tomorrow's paper set me thinking about important volumes living in my own mind.

There's "The Phantom Tollbooth" by Norton Juster, the children's book that is not really a children's book. I've written about it at length before. When you get past all the puns, fantasy and silliness, the idea of the whole world getting a tiny bit richer every time one of us learns something has never left me.

"Hop on Pop" by Dr. Seuss is the first book I ever read all the way through, all by myself. I've used it and given to various children over the years as they learned to read. It springs to mind in any discussion of beloved books.

I read just about every one of those old "biographies" in my elementary school library, but the one that stands out is "Dan Morgan: Rifleman" by Ernest E. Tucker.

At some point I realized that a lot of those books were largely fictionalized. (Did you ever notice how many famous people seemed to have had some fractal moment at the tender age of 10 that so completely predicted the pattern and accomplishments of their whole life's work?)

Even so, when I study colonial America, to this day the imagery that first comes to mind is from "Dan Morgan: Rifleman." This is anecdotal evidence that we should be careful what children are exposed to.

For a couple years, I devoured the very old Nancy Drew stories. It is a testament to how starved we were for a little characterization, an intellectual puzzle and a strong heroine that we slogged through so many pages of truly bad writing for what little of those elements crept into the books, probably by accident. I still love mysteries today.

For the longest time I thought of "Candide" by Voltaire as my favorite book, and it remains one of them. I first read it because it was assigned. Then I read it to see what I missed the first time. Then I read it in French, not all by myself, but with Monsieur Larousse at hand.

I never really thought of wrinkly old men from the 1700s as writing funny novels, but Voltaire did. Biting, too. Clever, concise, irreverent, but not entirely hopeless.

Twenty years later I can still recommend "Candide" because it is brilliant and relevant, but I can also admit that much of my admiration is of the "Hop on Pop" variety. (I did it!)

More recently I've returned to Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey, encouraged by fifth-graders in my Read Aloud West Virginia class, who enjoy these ancient adventures. Together, we marvel at a story 3,000 years old, with people whose aspirations and foibles are so current and recognizable they remind us of people we know, or of ourselves.

Don't miss "Books I Have Loved" in your Sunday Gazette-Mail.

Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com.


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