My great-grandmother was one of those people who jumped into life with both feet and without reservation. She would meet you at the door of her tiny home, take your arm, and escort you to the kitchen. This was her domain. This was what she knew; what she loved. She would automatically begin preparing you something to eat and drink. (She could not imagine that you would not be hungry when you came.) That done, she would converse with you in a humble, sweet, inquisitive manner, and she never ran out of something to say. Ever.
Her life’s philosophy was that you should only consume or engage in things that you love. She would ask if you loved chicken soup, or apple pie, or coffee. She wanted you to take a walk in the garden if you would love to. She would give you almost any possession she had if you really loved it. Not a bad life’s philosophy, really.
One thing which I have loved all of my life is a good book. As such, some people have suggested that I write an autobiography of my life and career. (Okay, only a couple and one of them was my mom.) I usually respond that, besides the fact that it would be incredibly boring, I simply did not see any reason for it. Perhaps this offering will be a biography, of sorts, from the perspective of the books that have been meaningful to me. One warning, however: Do not drive or operate heavy machinery during this reading, as it could prove hazardous or even fatal.
My first book came from my grandmother and I read it over and over until it literally came apart in my hands. It was a collection of fairy tales, complete with colorful illustrations and a shiny cover. I just loved it.
When I was a young girl in high school, I discovered Grace Livingston Hill, and was captivated by her stories of innocence and goodness. I read Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind tucked away in a window seat of the school bus. My Literature teacher was Mr. Loflin, a wheelchair bound, tough taskmaster. He not only taught us to read Shakespeare, but he helped us to “get” it. Even now (lo, these many years later) I still remember passages verbatim.
When I began traveling with the LeFevres (who became the Nelons) I discovered Eugenia Price’s The Burden Is Light, which led to her groundbreaking radio show. I pictured with clarity the budding tree outside her window which she was convinced God had orchestrated to be there precisely when she was.
While traveling with the Jimmy Swaggart crusades, we often spent extended periods overseas. I learned to pack a dozen Agatha Christie murder mysteries knowing that, amidst the poverty and the crude living situations, they would transport me to a totally different place. In no time at all, I could be sorting out suspicious behaviors on the Orient Express or savoring the indulgences of a lovely country estate where the rich and beautiful had gathered for a weekend of murder and mayhem.
When my heart was broken, I found solace in Chuck Swindoll’s Three Steps Forward, Two Steps Back and Improving Your Serve. One of the books that helped me gain perspective on knowing Christ was The Making Of A Man Of God by Alan Redpath. When I could not reconcile some of life’s twists and outcomes, I discovered David Wilkerson’s Have You Felt Like Giving Up Lately? All of these books I still read with some regularity.
When I signed with Word Records and began my solo career, I discovered Ann Kiemel, and a tiny book titled, Yes! Her candace and her simplicity impacted my writing perhaps more than anything.
When I read Frederic Buechner’s Now And Then, I immediately purchased everything he’d ever written. I read each book slowly, deliberately, purposefully absorbing not only his story, but the way he told it. He fed us small portions, each building onto the next event until they all suddenly intersected and made sense. His grasp of the language left me repeatedly uttering my favored, ‘Uhhhhm.’ Even today I keep multiple copies of his biographies, The Sacred Journey and Now And Then, just so that I can give them to people who come to our home.
My best friend suggested I try Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns and it, too, has become a staple. In my opinion, this book, more than any other, epitomizes the joy of reading.
I discovered Theodore Dreiser courtesy of a matronly librarian in Smyrna, Georgia. His classic, An American Tragedy, became another that I would read multiple times and recommend to friends. While his stories seem to come from a place of sadness or tragedy, they are classic fictional tales that haunt me still.
One of my personal favorites is Rick Bragg – a southern boy who wanted to make his mama proud, and whose biographical All Over But the Shoutin’ made me feel two extremes. First of all, I felt that the writer in me had happened upon Christmas morning when the gifts are so good that you cannot absorb the joy in one sitting. Secondly, it made the writer in me consider a career as a Wal-Mart greeter. I still read the book about every two years (as well as his other titles) and I still shake my head at his descriptive phrases and perfect analogies. And the payoff at the end is simply icing on the cake. When I met him at a bookstore in Nashville I could only babble. I am an outright, unapologetic fan.
When I read for pleasure these days, I enjoy Pat Conroy, John Lescroart, Steve Martini, Ridley Pearson and Sue Grafton. When I’m feeling rusty at what I do, I reread Lilly Walters’ What To Say When You’re Dying On The Platform, Ken Blanchard’s One Minute Manager and Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
My faith was shaped by Catherine Marshall’s lovely take on her living, breathing, day-to-day relationship with Christ. I was called to account by CS Lewis Screwtape Letters (I still have to read that in small doses) and Phillip Yancey’s Disappointment With God, in addition to Phillip Yancey’s anything.
My recounting of the books which have affected me deeply, personally, is limited by the space on this page. But this is a good start.
So, for those of you who are still awake, that’s the story of my life, as told by the silent friends who occupy the shelves in our family room. They are consistent and enduring. And my great-grandmother would be pleased to know that I truly love them.