The Book That Changed My Life

Mystery of the Chinese Junk

I swear that the story I’m about to tell you is true. It’s odd and a little eerie, but it really happened. First, though, a little background.

A Book Bargain for Bibliophiles

A few years ago as I was sifting through the discount bin of a local bookstore, I stumbled across a gem of a book titled The Book That Changed My Life: 71 Remarkable Writers Celebrate the Books That Matter Most to Them. I paid $1.99 for this priceless treasure-trove of personal testimonies to the transformative power of reading. I highly recommend this collection of essays as a great read-aloud for your language arts class. Each essay is short enough to read in a few minutes and would be a great way to begin a lesson. The book has essays by Dorothy Allison, Harold Bloom, Billy Collins, Patricia Cornwell, and David Halberstam, just to name a few; and the authors pay tribute to works including The Lord of the Rings, The Yearling, Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, Charlotte’s Web, and many, many more.

As I was thinking about how the book could be used to launch a writing assignment (students could write about a book that has had a profound influence on them, or maybe they could interview a relative, asking them which book has changed their lives), I began thinking about the book that has had the most profound effect on me. The first book that came to mind–no surprise for those who know me–is The Lord of the Rings. And it’s true, that book more than any other has changed my life. But before I met Frodo, Samwise, and the rest of the Fellowship, I was a ten-year old kid living in Kennewick, Washington, who had never read a real book. And then one day…

My Story

In the summer of 1976, we lived on a quiet little lane on the top of Garfield Hill in Kennewick, Washington, where one magical summer day I was playing outside alone. I don’t remember what I was playing, or why my brothers and sister weren’t outside with me, but I do remember standing on our front porch watching a strange boy approach towing a little red wagon. I say strange not only because I had never seen him before, but also because of his odd behavior. He was three or four houses away, and he walked slowly down the street tugging his Red Flyer behind him, stopping in front of each and every driveway in the cul-de-sac. He had sandy-blonde hair and wore jeans and a striped t-shirt, and he looked as if he were my age, or maybe a year or two older. It’s peculiar how his image is burned into my memory.

As he approached each house he would pause at the driveway, look at the front door for a few moments, then he would reach into his red wagon and pull something out of it which he tossed into the driveway. Then he would nod his head in satisfaction and move on to the next house. As he got closer and closer, I could see what he was throwing into the driveways.

Books.

His Red Flyer was filled with books.

Finally he got to our house. But instead of looking at our door he looked directly at me. He looked me up and down, and then he nodded to himself. He turned around, reached into his wagon, and pulled out a book. He smiled and said, “You’ll like this.” And then he tossed it into the driveway and walked on, pulling his Red Flyer behind him.

chinesejunkcoverI waited for him to get a house or two away then came down to the driveway and gingerly picked up the book he had left behind for me. For me. “You’ll like this,” he had said. It was a hardcover book with a blue spine. The front cover read, The Hardy Boys: The Mystery of the Chinese Junk. It had a picture of two boys in a motorboat on the water staring at a foreign-looking sailing ship. I ran inside and showed it to my mom, who was in the kitchen, baking.

“Mom! Look what someone just threw into our driveway.”

She wiped her hands on a dishrag and took the book.

“Oh, the Hardy Boys. You’ll like it. You should read it.”

That’s all she said. No questions about who threw it or why. Just, “You’ll like it.”

So I took it and read it. The first real book I ever read. And they were both right, the strange boy and my mother. I did like it. In fact, I loved it. There was a big list of other Hardy Boy books on the back cover, and I asked my mom if she would buy them for me, and she did, as quickly as I could read them: The Tower Treasure, While the Clock Ticked, The Disappearing Floor, The Secret of the Caves, and many more. A lifelong love of reading had been born.

I never saw the boy again. I don’t know who he was or why he went through our neighborhood tossing books into driveways that day. But I still have the book. That Hardy Boys book changed my life. From that moment on I was a reader, and my life has never been the same.

Your Story

How about you? Your turn, now, to think about the book that changed your life. Leave a comment, even if it’s only the title and author. Or tell us the whole story.

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