Presenter of the National Book Awards

The Book That Changed My Life

Richard Peck

Richard Peck was honored as a 1998 National Book Award Finalist for Young People's Literature for A Long Way to Chicago.

The literature of our childhood becomes our lifelong luggage. I believe Alice in Wonderland was the first book to change my life, thought I don't think I've yet read it right through. My mother read it to me when I was five. She read to me sedulously, having no intention of sending off an ignoramus to first grade. One afternoon my aunt came in and said to her, "What are you reading to him?"

"Alice in Wonderland," my mother said.

"What's it about?" my aunt asked.

"I wish I knew," my mother answered.

I was struck dumb. At five I thought my mother knew everything. If there were depths in books that even she hadn't plumbed, that was the life for me.

In grade school when I was reading for myself, Robert Benchley was my author-of-choice. Where I found his essays I can't imagine. But they made me long to be a confused bachelor who lived in New York and dressed for dinner. That he was confused by alcohol got past me, which only proves that reading can never corrupt a child.

But more profoundly, Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi was the book that really changed my life. It didn't make me want to be a riverboat pilot; it made me want to be a writer. It even gave a kind of fugitive permission. Mark Twain could make poetry out of the prosaic midsection of America where I was growing up. From Mark Twain I learned that humor is anger sent to finishing school. I got a career of my own out of that.

Richard Peck