“Brain Groove” Books

Over my winter break I re-read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, a childhood favorite–starting on Midwinter Eve, as the book does, and finishing January 2nd. I was prompted by a Twitter readalong hosted by the writer Robert Macfarlane, though I didn’t participate on Twitter. On the final day of the readalong, Macfarlane tweeted a message from Susan Cooper, who wrote, “Writer, reader, when our imaginations speak the same language, we can change each other’s lives.”

Did The Dark Is Rising change my life? I don’t know, but it does feel to me like one of those childhood books that helped make me who I am, that speak my language in a very deep way. Such books feel like part of me; when I reread them, a small part of me may be critical, but mostly I feel as if a puzzle piece is clicking into the place prepared for it in my mind, my heart, my soul. When I tweeted about this experience, Victoria Janssen commented that these are books that made grooves in your brain.

They’re different from favorites. There are books I loved and read over and over as a child (some of which I still revisit) that I don’t think of this way: the Little House books, for instance, or Anne of Green Gables. And many, many more. Maybe they shaped me too, in ways I’m less conscious of, but I don’t experience that “click” when I read them. There are books I discovered later in life that mean a great deal to me, but that isn’t the same either.

I think all my brain groove books are fantasy, which is odd, as it’s a genre I rarely read now. They’re about good and evil, dark and light, quests and power.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that some of these books are by fellow Anglicans. I approach my faith in the same (perhaps childlike) way I approach these books: as a collection of words, images, symbols, ideas that provide basic meaning to my life. There’s something Jungian in the way their archetypes form part of the basic framework through which I view the world. (I can’t seem to find a more precise–or less grandiose–way of saying it).

Some of my brain-groove books:

  • The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
  • A Wrinkle in Time and A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle
  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
  • No one book, but parts of the the Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis

It’s a pretty predictable set–but maybe that’s a sign of the power these books have for many readers.

One other that profoundly shaped me in a different way: Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Would I have gone on to do a PhD in English without its delight in words? Maybe, but who knows…. Cause and effect are hard to unravel here. Would those archetypal fantasies have shaped my own moral architecture had I not also been a church-going child?

Do you have brain-groove books? I’d love to hear about them if you want to share.

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16 Responses to “Brain Groove” Books

  1. willaful says:

    “Brain-groove” books spoke to me instantly. And a huge percentage of mine are fantasy as well.

    You reminded me of a quote from a fantasy that came out 10-15 years ago. In it, an adolescent boy is trying to help some magical realm and someone asks him if children normally do such important things in his world. And he thinks about Lucy and Edmund and Will and so forth and says, “all the time.”

    (If you happen to know the book I’m thinking of, please tell me!)

  2. willaful says:

    Oh, I didn’t even answer your questions. Some of mine, aside from the obvious ones you already mentioned:

    The Half Brothers by Ann Lawrence (an early spark of romance love. Also, gardens.)
    Magic in the Alley by Mary Calhoun (This one didn’t even make it into paperback, I think, so no one knows it. It wasn’t that well reviewed. And it is so deep and moving and creative.)
    The Secret Language by Ursula Nordstrom (one of the rare ones that isn’t fantasy, though it sure sounds like it should be.)
    The Witch Family by Eleanor Estes
    The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton

    I’ll think of a dozen others as soon as I hit “post.”

    I’m currently rereading A Wizard of Earthsea and sadly, it still isn’t doing much for me. But I want to reread the whole series and get to the ones that weren’t written yet when I was young.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I haven’t even heard of any of those! (Except Estes, at least as an author). I taught Wizard of Earthsea in Children’s Lit which added new layers for me (as did reading the books after the trilogy and some of Le Guin’s comments about them). But the brain groove effect is still there as bedrock.

  3. I knew exactly what you meant by brain-groove as soon as I read it. And, The Dark is Rising and A Wizard of Earthsea would definitely be on my list. It is interesting to me to realise that this is beyond an emotional reaction. The Grey King scared me rigid and I still can’t drive past Cader Idris without shuddering and wanting to get away as quickly as possible, but it was The Dark is Rising that really shaped me at a level beyond simple emotion.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The Grey King was terrifying! I have reread the 1st 3 books a few times in adulthood, but I think the last two only once. So I guess that says something about which spoke to me. I am somewhat similarly selective about my L’Engle re-reading.

  4. I’m not sure these are exactly the same kind of books you’re talking about, and I probably read them a bit later than you read your brain-groove books, but I think I read them all before I was 18 and they did have a big impact:

    C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters
    Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories
    Jane Austen’s Persuasion

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Well it’s hard to say whether other people mean the same thing! I would say something like Middlemarch, which I first read in my teens, affected me profoundly and still does, but it doesn’t feel part of me in the same way. I am kind of fascinated by the difference now, and whether it has to do with developmental stages.

  5. lawless says:

    In addition to A Wrinkle in Time and Narnia, there are LoTR, Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and The Brothers Karamazov.

    Like you, I read a lot more fantasy as a child than as an adult.

  6. Teresa says:

    I wonder if there’s something specific about fantasy that makes it so effective at this. The books I think of in this way are all fantasy: The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (the only Narnia book I read as a kid). I read very little fantasy as a kid, but these books worked some sort of special magic. Something about the archetypes, as you suggest, perhaps.

    There are some books that I read so much that I almost memorized them and barely have to “read” them if I pick them up now. Some of the Little House books, lots of Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, specifically her teen romances. I’m sure they had some kind of effect, but I know what you mean about it feeling different.

    Interesting point, too, about the Anglican fantasy writers. I only became Anglican as an adult in my 30s, yet those writers, some of whom I only encountered as an adult, spoke to me long before that. Maybe something in my brain knew where I was heading before I consciously realized it. (I was previously Baptist, but no one who knows me seemed surprised that I converted.)

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Hmm. The Oz books. I loved them (I had my grandfather’s copies) but not in the same way. Something about this for me is different from loving and re-reading.

      I do suspect that my reading of certain books, even if they are not Christian in outlook, was reinforced by Biblical and liturgical language/images. That may be part of the difference.

  7. Oh, I love this notion. My biggest brain-groove book is (books are) the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis. They are the entire interior of my brain. But I know that feeling of familiarity when a new book falls into a groove as if it already existed — I felt that way about Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man and Laurent Binet’s HHhH. But the Chronicles of Narnia are still the biggest ones.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I would say I have read some things later in life that are able to borrow existing brain grooves. Something like that. Where a writer speaks your language in a very deep way, whether it is something familiar about the voice or congenial about the worldview.

      • That’s more what the books I listed did: described certain things in a way that felt right.

      • Marianne McA says:

        That’s an interesting idea. I was trying to think which books I’d call ‘brain groove’ books, and I don’t know that I’ve come up with any – I loved the Dark is Rising books, but don’t feel they were more primal than other books. (That may be due to Presbyterianism, but I did love Henrietta’s House, and I think Goudge would be Anglican).

        However, I had the oddest experience reading Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone as an adult – I felt that I was rereading a most beloved childhood book that I had somehow completely forgotten.
        It was the only time I’ve had that experience, and I like the explanation that Rowling was coasting down streams other writers had carved.

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