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The Book That Changed My Life
Ingram Essay Contest Winner:
Shawn Wathen

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Photo by ERIN BERZEL/Missoulian

This past fall Ingram Book Company held a contest asking its customers to write an essay on the intriguing and telling topic of The Book That Changed My Life.

The winner was Shawn Wathen of Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Montana.

As the winner Shawn was the guest of Ingram Book Company, Random House Inc. and the National Book Foundation at the National Book Award Ceremony & Dinner held at the New York City Marriott Marquis, on November 20, 2002, and received a $500 American Express gift cheque for travel expenses.

The winning essay is being published in the January 2003 issue of Advance magazine and was included in the 2002 National Book Award Dinner program.

Here is Shawn's winning essay:

1989. The Navy, then college, I drifted through life. Idly browsing the university bookstore's shelves one day, my eyes alit on a work by an author whose name, with its odd consonant groupings, appeared unpronounceable.

A poet.

Not being a reader of poetry, it remains a mystery how I had wandered into that section. The pink cover depicted a still life by Chardin; the author photo presented a stern-faced man, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Opening it at random, the poem "A Magic Mountain" captivated me. I cannot recall ever reading anything so breathlessly. I was stunned. I stood rooted to that spot, reading poem after poem. I had read books my entire life, but never understood that words could wield such power.

I purchased the book-my first book of poetry-and kept it with me continually. Within a week I had decided to pursue graduate studies in the intellectual history of that poet's native land. What historical conditions could produce such a poet? While studying his native language, I met the woman I love. At our wedding we read "After Paradise," from that same collection. I traveled abroad to further my understanding of this poet and his culture, and met countless wonderful people on my journey--including the poet himself--enriching my life beyond measure.

As a bookseller, I introduce others to the power and beauty of poetry. Poetry matters. Words can change the world. Czeslaw Milosz changed my world with his Collected Poems, 1931-1987.

Shawn Wathen
Chapter One Book Store
252 Main Street
Hamilton, MT 59840

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