Happy Friday! For Day 14 of Falling in Love With Books, I’m absolutely delighted that my friend Elisabeth from The Dirigible Plum jumped in with a book she has fallen in love with and that has affected her life in multiple ways. Trust me, you want to read this post, and look for this book. You’re in for a treat today…
Kendall Hailey changed my life.
I still remember pulling The Day I Became an Autodidact off the shelf at the bookstore where I worked part-time after school.
I was a high school senior with a very bad case of senioritis. But not learningitis. I couldn’t bring myself to go to my own classes, but I accompanied my mom to her college night classes in English whenever she’d let me. I read her textbooks. I skimmed her lecture notes. I sat in the hallway and read Bacon’s essays and Donne’s poetry.
The only thing I wanted to do was read. Everything. All the time. I couldn’t even get to sleep at night because there were too many books to be read.
I worked part-time in a bookstore, but the job was mostly an excuse to use my employee lending privileges to check out brand-new hardcover books that my library wouldn’t be purchasing for months and to exercise my organizational OCD (which only comes out at bookstores) aligning the edges of book stacks so they match up just so and spotting misshelved titles.
That’s how I met Kendall.
I was organizing the self-help section when I saw it. The Day I Became An Autodidact. The rainbow print writing on the spine intrigued me, as did the word “autodidact,” which I had only just recently learned.
I slipped the book off the shelf, correctly identified it as biography/memoir, but I didn’t shelve it in its proper place. Instead, I took it home with me, where it’s lived on my shelves ever since.
I knew I had found a kindred soul after reading the first few paragraphs, which find Kendall horrified to receive a letter from school during the summer and even more horrified when she discovers it contains a required summer reading list.
“I read (rarely skimming) everything school tells me to from the middle of September to the middle of June, but the summer is mine. And being told what to read during the summer suddenly made me realize that I don’t really like being told what to read during the fall, winter, and spring either.”
And so Kendall resolves to get herself through high school as quickly as she can and to embark on a project of self-education. She uses summer vacation to “get a head start on reading everything ever published,” starting with Anna Karenina.
The book recounts three years of Kendall’s journey as a reader, writer, daughter, sister, friend, and autodidact. She reads voraciously (mostly a self-chosen curriculum of what we generally considered the “great books”); she watches a lot of old films and goes to the theater (her father is a well-known playwright); she talks writing shop with her mother (novelist Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey); she travels; she paints; she bickers with her sister; she writes; she struggles to write. And always, she reflects, trying to figure out what it all means.
“I have been given the chance to live my own best life, but no instructions were included with the chance. So I haven’t been exactly sure how to do it or if my efforts have been any good….But even if the struggle to get the most out of my freedom is sometimes hard for me, I don’t want to stop struggling.
I know that for certain now. I’ve seen too much of life, and even if I haven’t loved all I’ve seen, I’ve loved being able to see so much. I don’t ever want the days to slip together in some terrible way and I’ll look back and life will be gone. I want to feel something every day, even if occasionally it happens to be a little misery. Even if at times I feel a little lost, I want to find my own way.”
What keeps me returning to The Day I Became an Autodidact twenty-five years after I first read it is Kendall’s voice. Fresh, funny, immediately engaging. There is a sweetness and charm to her voice that could be mistaken for naivete but really, it’s nerdiness at its finest.
Kendall Hailey was the original nerdfighter.
As John Green so eloquently explains in “Harry Potter Nerds Win at Life”, the great thing about being a nerd is that you can be “unironically enthusiastic about stuff,” and Kendall is so incredibly enthusiastic about everything. She is wide-eyed with wonder at the world.
She is no Pollyanna. There is suffering here too. There are hard things in every life. Her father’s illness. Her uncle’s illness. Her aging grandmother. Her own struggles to write. But everything in life is worth her close attention. Everything is worth writing about, wondering about.
When I was sixteen, The Day I Became an Autodidact became both invitation and permission slip. It was too late for me to graduate early from high school, as Hailey managed to do, but it wasn’t too late to take time off before college.
And that’s what I did. One year turned into two. I stayed up late reading and slept through the mornings. I haunted libraries and bookstores. I watched great films and wrote hundreds of letters and started writing (but never finished) at least twenty novels. I traveled. Like Kendall, I had the chance “to live my own best life” and to discover for myself before I even turned 18 what I needed in this world to be content.
And for the past twenty-five years, that hasn’t changed very much.