I’m not generally a non-fic fan. I appreciate all genres and read many of them, but I wouldn’t say that non-fiction would normally be the book that my friends would expect to have changed my life. But, one did.
I read Angela’s Ashes at twenty-three. I had never been to college. I was working a minimum wage job that promised nothing. In fact, if I’m being honest, Angela’s Ashes was only the second book I’d ever read.
That was a long time ago.
McCourt’s memoir of his impoverished childhood in, first, New York and then Ireland, did not inspire me to go to college or quit my dead-end job. It did not motivate me to abandon my husband and year-old daughter for bigger and brighter opportunities.
In fact, it wasn’t until I was 25, then a mother of two, and a freshman in college that I really appreciated the impact of McCourt’s work. It was at that time that the man himself came to our small university to speak during an arts festival. I was a lowly student reporter then, working for the school paper and was, by the grace of those who tolerated my sweet talking, the only student invited to a cocktail party after McCourt’s lecture. I was so cool that I brought my English Lit instructor with me.
But it was that night, among the upper-crust of university society, that the small Irishman stood alone in a palatial home, surrounded by wealthy Americans, too frightened to approach him. I ceased the moment. I approached and very shyly thanked him for writing something so beautiful. When I confessed that his book inspired me to take writing seriously he smiled, then said, “God help you, love.”
Coolest. Moment. Ever.
I went back again and again and read Angela’s Ashes, then the follow ups Tis and Teacher Man. The latter two were great reads; funny, insightful, heartbreaking, but it was Angela’s Ashes and that night getting a slight warning from a Pulitzer Prize winner that changed me irrecoverably. I wanted my life to mimic his. I wanted to inspire and motivate others with my words just as McCourt had done for me.
It was magical.
Some have said that McCourt’s “Irish childhood illuminated his prose,” and I’d agree that his experiences, devastating and soul crushing as they were, certainly shaped his work. But it was the man himself, the creator God of that prose that introduced me to the joy of reading, and made me appreciate the moments when we’re far out of our element, when we’re surrounded by the clutter and chaos of others, that simple words can connect us.
Thank you, Mr. McCourt. Wherever you are, I hope you’re still smiling.