The Books We Read In College

irv0-002I am reading a book right now that I’m not really in love with.  All of the characters are unlikeable and it’s set in New York in 2001 and I know something catastrophic is getting ready to happen and I look forward to it, because, like I said, I hate all of the characters.  

One of the characters was an English major in college, she says at one point that she looks at the books on her shelves and realizes that she read them in college but can’t remember anything about them.  I pondered for a moment about the books I read in Bible college. From the entire four years there, between assigned and pleasure reading, I only remember one book definitively.

If you and I have talked books, you might even know how much I love this book.  It’s a “like” on my Facebook wall.  I’ve read it now 3 or 4 times, but you always remember your first.  I don’t remember when I started John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  It must have been over Christmas break of my senior year.  I came back to school a few weeks early to go to some kind of convention that was being held on campus.  I loved the feeling of walking around campus with 30% of its usual population.  And everywhere I went, I carried A Prayer for Owen Meany with me.  I ate lunches in the cafeteria by myself, just me and the book.  I don’t remember a single thing anyone talked about at that convention, but I remember that book.  My roommate had not yet arrived for the spring semester and every night I stayed up late reading.

On one of those nights, I stayed awake later than usual, so committed, so spellbound.  I measured the bulk of  the remaining pages in my hand, questioning whether I should turn in and finish the next day or keep going.  I kept going.  And then I finished.  If I tried hard enough, I could probably explain to you why the book resonated so deeply with me, it’s about unconventional people, it’s about complicated relationships with religion, it takes place in New England (and Canada).  There is also something about the ending, the theme of fulfilling the perceived will of God, that spoke to the 21 year old version of me on his final chapter of undergraduate life at a Bible college.

All this is to say that I remember this vividly, that the moment I read the last line of A Prayer for Owen Meany,  “O God—please bring him back! I shall keep asking You,” I shut the book and started weeping.  I lay on my little dorm super single bed with a royal blue Montgomery Ward bedspread and wept for poor dead Owen Meany and broken John Wheelwright and John Irving for being so brilliant and for me, preparing to go into the real world and not feeling equipped to do so.  And I cried until I was done and then I wiped my tears and put the book on my shelf, took off my glasses and went to sleep.

And right now, just thinking about that experience, that kinship, I am there in that January in Missouri cold dorm room, under those covers, reading a book about the world out there, beyond Joplin.

If you’ve read this far, you are probably on your own journey, thinking about that book or maybe two that you read at that time, such an impressionable time.  And you felt like John Irving or maybe Alice Hoffman or maybe Armistead Maupin or maybe James Joyce had written something specifically, singularly just for you.  And what a gift, when you think about it: you will carry that book with you forever, wherever you go.

7 thoughts on “The Books We Read In College

  1. I was an English major in college in two different universities. So many books blew me away, but my
    ‘Owen Meany’ moment came my sophomore year of high school. We had this new teacher–an exciting young guy just about 25. He was a theatre guy. He turned me on to Tennessee Williams. I read Glass Menagerie. Then over Christmas break I went to the library and checked out every TW script they had. I started with Streetcar. It was Christmas eve. I stayed up past midnight, finishing it in one sitting. I closed the book and looked up. Like you, I see the living room, feel the over-stuffed chair I was sitting in and my mother’s ugly lamp. It was the moment I decided somehow my life would be spent in the theatre. It thrilled me, scared me, and I was never the same. Thanks for stirring the memories and the moment. Great post!

  2. AHHHH!!!!! YES!!!!!! I read A Prayer For Owen Meany as a senior in high school. It blew me away. The part you mentioned, that made you weep…. SAME. HERE. That was the most intense reaction I have ever had while reading. I was crying so much. I remember that moment so well.

    I am currently rereading that novel. I’m about half way into it. It’s even better than I remember.


    • Thanks for responding, I love hearing from other readers! You make me want to pull out my copy and reread it too! Have you read A Widow for One Year? It’s my other favorite John Irving.

      • Hmmm… I believe I have read all of John Irving’s novels. Widow for One Year is also quite good, especially the first part. I did not find the Ruth character ‘real’ enough. Remember the children’s book that Ted Cole writes? In the novel, it’s called A Sound Like Someone Trying Not to Make a Sound. Well, they actually published that fictitious book, and I have it! (I am a John Irving super fan, obviously). Check this out:

        I also loved The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules. A Prayer for Owen Meany reigns though.


  3. I finished this book earlier this week. I had started it a few years ago, but just wasn’t ready for it yet, I guess. I’m glad I read it now … I had a lot of time to mozy through it and really savor it. Kind of had to slog through some of the middle section that covered the winter with the Christmas pageant gone horribly wrong, but I’m glad I persevered.

    • The first thing I thought when I read your post was it’s definitely time for me to revisit, because I don’t even remember the Christmas pageant! It sounds as if you liked, but did not love it. Have you read A Widow for One Year? (Have we already had this conversation?) I’m currently on a Claire Messud kick, have you read her?

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