My Three Books

Of all the books I had to read in school, only three stand out in my memory, and two I’ve read many times since. 

The first was “My Side of the Mountain,” a 1959 novel for young people about a 12-year old boy who hates living in New York City and runs away to live off the land on his grandfather’s abandoned farm near Delhi, NY. Living in the Bronx in the 1960s, and having spent several family vacations on a farm near Delhi, NY, where I found temporary respite from the madness of urban decay, it’s not surprising I got lost in this book many times from an early age. What really captured my imagination was the idea of living alone in nature, far away from a society in which one feels like an outsider. Unfortunately, the book was made into a horrible film adaptation in 1969 which really ruined the book for me. Thankfully, Robert Redford’s “Jeremiah Johnson” was released in 1972 and revived my fantasy of living as a recluse in the wilderness.

The second book was Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” the 1922 novel eponymously named for its lead character which describes his life-long spiritual self-discovery. I was a 14-year old high school sophomore, and for reasons I cannot explain, “Siddhartha” struck a chord in me. Like most people my age, I felt rootless and confused about many things in my life, but Siddhartha’s spiritual exploration got my attention, as did my English teacher’s way of analyzing it. It was one of the few books I didn’t return at the end of the school year, and although it disappeared long ago, I’ve tried to keep a copy on hand since, reading it whenever my questions exceed my understanding. One particular memory I have is reading “Siddhartha” working the midnight shift as a campground summer security guard while sipping coffee and listening to John Coltrane on the radio. It was a moment of true peace and clarity.

The third book was “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau. I learned about Thoreau in American history as a high school junior, and needed to read the actual book rather than rely on other peoples’ interpretations and descriptions of it (an impulse implanted in my skeptical self long, long ago). Thoreau’s “Walden” spoke to me in a way I had not yet heard. It was as if someone struck a tuning fork and touched it to my soul, resonating together as one. It brought me back to the same images and emotions brought out by “My Side of the Mountain” and “Siddhartha,” and reminded me of both my innate humanness and my connection to nature. This, too, is a book I’ve kept on hand, going through many copies in my nearly 60-years of life.

If there is one common theme among these books that have resonated with me over time, it is that each reminds me that my connection to G-d is very personal, private and ultimately solitary. We may be part of a “tribe” or like-minded community, and have life partners with whom we share our lives, but in the end, each of us has our own one-on-one relationship with G-d while being part of a greater unity of which we are both the most and least significant parts. We are born alone, we die alone, but each of us carries a Divine spark that connects us to the natural world around us. And it is there I find my peace.

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