(Roxanne's Note: Billy Collins' wit, as evidenced by his poetry and his persona, is in full display in his essay. Who would have thought you could analogize
The Yearling and
Lolita ? yet you read the essay and wonder why you never saw the connection before. Plus, I utterly agree with his introduction ? every book in some way changes you.)
by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
by Vladimir Nabokov
The opportunity to single out a book that "changed my life" makes me realize that no book leaves us unchanged, for better or worse. Why read otherwise? Even to be bored is to be changed. Sven Birkerts points out that the act of reading (especially fiction) posits an Elsewhere, another place beyond the present reality we inhabit. We read in order to travel, or be borne, to that other place and thus interrupt the curse of having only one life to lead.
Strange to say, but Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (1938) finds itself in competition with Nabokov's Lolita (1955) for first prize in my life-changing category. As far as geographical tourism goes, The Yearling, which my mother first read to me, lifted me out of a childhood in New York City and set me down in the scrubland of north Florida, where a barefoot boy was free to roam an exotic terrain of palmetto, orange groves, and alligator swamps. Lolita, which I read secretly while ensconced in a Jesuit college, took me on a tour of an America I hadn't seen yet: a land of billboards, western scenery, and cheesy motels. And, of course, a tour of strange love.
What more deeply connects the two books ? one written for children, the other about a seducer of children ? is their capacity to expand the natural sympathies of the reader. A boy and his pet deer and a man and his nymphet seem an odd coupling, but they manage a similar effect. The plight of the deer and the fate of Lo arouse pity; but the doomed attempts to capture and control two essentially wild creatures elicit sympathy. No fence, however high, will contain the growing deer, and no amount of scheming and cajoling will keep the girl from growing into a woman. Her death in childbirth underscores, from Humbert's point of view, the fatal consequences of her maturation. If reading enlarges our sympathy for others, strangers mostly ? here a boy and a man whose loves are doomed by their desire ? then these two books, alien to each other, widened my world and awakened empathies I had never felt before.
Billy Collins is the author of six books of poetry, including The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems; Picnic, Lightning; Sailing Alone Around the Room; and Questions About Angels, which was selected by Edward Hirsch for the National Poetry Series. Collins' poetry has appeared in a variety of periodicals and in several volumes of The Best American Poetry. A New York Public Library Literary Lion, he is Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College and editor of Poetry 180, an Internet project designed to make it easy for students to hear or read a poem on each of the 180 days of the school year. He has served as United States Poet Laureate (2001?2003) and is now New York State Poet Laureate (2004?2006).