Their Eyes Were Watching God

A friend of mine is a librarian in the Chicago system.  She’s actually second-in-command at my favorite branch, the Bee branch in Bronzeville

Overton Hygienic Building in the 1920's, hq of the Chicago Bee newspaper, now the Bee branch of the CPL

Overton Hygienic Building in the 1920's, hq of the Chicago Bee newspaper, now the Bee branch of the CPL

Recently, the librarians made a retreat.  In one of their workshops, they were each asked to speak for ten minutes on a book that had changed their lives.  My friend chose Their Eyes Were Watching God.  She can’t remember when she first read it, but she’s read it many many times, and it electrifies her life now as it has for many years before.

Oddly, most of her fellow  librarians chose non-fiction, in fact, most chose “how to” books.  She couldn’t think of one other work of fiction.  I was surprised, because it’s fiction that almost always touches me in that way that makes me feel as though someone were pulling me up by the roots of my hair.  In my teens, Portrait of the Artist affected me with so much intensity that I could hardly sleep for the need to plunge into it over and over. Although I’ve lost some of my adolescent intensity, there are novels like Gilead or A Blessing on the Moon where I reach the end and have to start over again at the beginning at once.

What books have changed your life?



  • corkhead

    As a child, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield & Black Beauty, plus, when I was very young,a Rupert Bear annual each Christmas! As an adult, certainly The Womens’ Room, Woman on the Edge of Time & The Colour Purple are the main ones.

    I can’t imagine a non-fiction book having the same effect.

  • As a child I loved the Anne of Green Gables books. As an adult, Creek Mary’s Blood by Dee Brown touched me and changed my view of Native Americans. Don’t even know if it’s in print, anymore.

    More recently, I found Waterlily by Ella Cara DeLoria so moving. Besides Crime Novels, my favorite books are about the American Indian Tribes.

  • Saule

    Hello,I’m a retired Japanese librarian. I loved Erich Kaestner’s books in childhood (as “Punktchen und Anton”), had read “Anne of the Green Gables” and “Jane Eyre” in my teens, very much moved by a french novel “L’ame enchantee”. As a Japanese author, I want to mention Rohan Koda, but maybe he isn’t known in western world.
    I always loved detective stories,too. Of course the first books were Holmes series, and then Agatha Christy (mu best favorite is “At Bertram’s Hotel”, those two extraordinary ladies!), Dick Francis and V.I.stories.

    One episode I want to introduce. Once one of Ellery Queen wrote an essay about a book which changed his life at age 12. It was one of the Sherlock Holmes series and he could read the rest of the Holmes series with the help of an old kind woman librarian of the New York Public Library. I can’t forget this episode. You can read it in an wonderful anthology “That eager zest”.

  • Jane

    Merry go round in the sea by Randolph Stow, Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot and Shizuko Go’s Requiem. Both Stow and Go deal with experiences of WW2, Go’s is incredibly moving and deals with the day to day experiences of a young girl. Stow’s always gets to me because of the young boy’s yearning for everything to go back to ‘normal’ after the war, especially when his uncle who was a POW comes back, but that can never be. White is powerful, I haven’t read it for a number of years now, but Himmelfarb and Mrs Godbold in particular always stay in mind. And if you want a great name for your regular urban sprawl, White’s was called Barrenugli (spelling might not be correct) – very evocative.

  • These are such compelling suggestions. There seems to be one collection of Koda’s short fiction in English, which I’ll try to read this summer. And I think the suggestion of Waterlily is especially apt when tied to Their Eyes were watching God, because Hurston, like DeLoria, was a student of Franz Boaz. And I want to see the other books as well, especially Go’s Requiem.

  • gmharcourt

    Late to the discussion, but did you ever get hold of Go’s Requiem? I’m
    the translator and would be very happy to provide
    one — longtime fan of yours.

  • Thank you very kindly. I’d love a copy. If you really can spare one, please send it to me at 1507 E 53rd St, #302, Chicago 60615. I’d be happy to send you a check.

  • gmharcourt

    One slightly foxed copy will be on its way. (It’s out of print.) And never mind about checks — what VI has done for me and my mother over the years is without price. It’s a small thank-you.

  • Leslie Trainer

    Knock knock–as another retired (school) librarian, and Paretsky booster, would love to jump into this comment thread to marvel that the Go book Requiem has been mentioned as a life-changing read. Had resigned myself to belonging to a tiny club of persons who knew this bit of literary gold and am thrilled to find one is not alone. Hard to describe in a few short strokes as it works on many levels, beginning with the darkest horror, and ending in an incandescent beam of understanding, across age, time, culture–always returned to me by students, especially girls, who were indeed altered and enriched by having read it. So, yes, “especially Go’s Requiem.” Absolutely.

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God has long been one of my all time favorite books. Janie and Tea Cake have an unparalleled relationship, very difficult, very beautiful. When I used to teach Women’s Studies courses on Women’s Literature, this was always the book I would have to beg my students to read, promising that the dialect would stop being distracting after the first chapter or so.
    I also love The Bone People by Keri Hulme, a woman writer from New Zealand – she’s part Maori and part European, and the book goes deep. Not an easy read, but so mesmerizing.
    And Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, a writer at the top of my Best Writers list. One non-fiction book, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, by Alice Walker.
    Hard to stop now that I’m on a roll. But that’s all for now.


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