Raise your hand if a book has changed your life, moved you to tears, or taken you to places you never imagined visiting. I can’t see you, of course, but I suspect many hands just went up. Certainly, some books have a remarkable ability to alter our worlds, sometimes in a solitary way and sometimes, when we’re fortunate, in the midst of rich community. And that’s what we hear from English teacher Chris McEnroe.  

Chris McEnroe has been on the English department faculty at Tabor Academy in Marion, Massachusetts since 2005. 

Great books are scary ornaments that collect dust. Should you reach for them carelessly they may well fall on your head, knock you out, break your nose, a toe, fill the air with dust.

As a child I often wondered at the power of those books on my father’s wall-sized case, but reading them? I could just as well have eaten granite. One day my family moved. The book shelf came down. And my fearful wonder became more feeling than activity.

Until decades later, when Moby Dick fell at my feet in the event of the 24-hour reading marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum held each January. Like other great books from my father’s shelf, Moby Dick, protruded its bimestrial sentences masoned with words of gargantuan, monastic menace. In high school it read like the offspring of a medical dictionary and treatise on biological cartography. It made me feel stupid. Yet, I could not shake the feeling that it held some empowering secrets, some mystic understanding that could yield a little balance to my shaky world. Perhaps reading the great American novel with hundreds of others at its geographical wellspring, New Bedford, could render the granite of those secrets wholly digestible; maybe even tasty.

I expected a museum of Melvillian monks asway in incantation, but just through the door I saw my friend- a fisherman no less. And there was a dental hygienist, and a grocery clerk, and there was a police officer, determined to stay through the night. One reader at a time lead the marathon, five minutes at a turn while the rest of us followed along.

Great books can be read in one day!? Who would have believed that!?

Some read like they were singing their mother tongue; some like the famous newsman, who- so used to speaking endlessly on camera- read Moby Dick as if stumbling through a first-grade reader.

“You have to sound it out,” I almost said aloud.

And in that great event, that great book did indeed yield an empowering secret, I believe.

Great books should be read aloud and in good company.