After a short description of what we were going to do, the three of us went first, to model both speaking and listening. We had chosen the subject -- a book that changed your life when you were still of an age when a book could do that -- so that most everyone would be able to share a meaningful experience. Indeed, it would be unusual for an attender at a science fiction convention to not be able to name one (or many) books that were significant. In thinking about this beforehand, I ran into the problem of having too many books come to mind, until I realized that I was restricting myself to works of science fiction and fantasy, which I had not discovered until my high school years. Once I softened my concept of what the book had to be -- it had to be sf/f, right? since that is what I write professionally -- a very different sort of reading experience emerged from the mists of childhood.
I remembered vividly the summer between second and third grades, when reading suddenly made sense to me. Before that, I'd slugged along with how reading was taught in the mid 1950s, neither catching fire nor lagging behind the class. But that summer I did catch fire. I sat in my rocking chair in my bedroom and devoured a third grade reader. Illustrations in bright, almost luminous colors adorned the pages, and although I didn't care for every story, enough of them hit just the right tone for me. One of these was an excerpt from Understood Betsy, by Dorothy Canfield. The story was about a thin, anxious city girl who goes to live with country relatives and discovers her own strength and resourcefulness. I was very like that girl, growing up in a family that was the target of a McCarthy-era investigation, and in Betsy I saw that my life didn't have to be that way, that I too could become assured and competent.
As story after story unfolded in the circle, I heard the echoes and variations of this theme. At some point in our young (or not-so-young) lives, a book showed us that our lives could be different -- richer, more powerful, filled with fascinating things to learn and people who shared our passions. What separated this experience from any other gathering where readers compare their "gateway" books was that each speaker had the undivided attention of the whole group, and each listener had only to listen, knowing that when his or her time came, that respectful silence would be theirs.
Afterwards, I'd hoped to hear former astronaut Rick Searfoss, but word was that he was stuck in freeway traffic; he might have showed up later, but I had my own panel to get to.
The illustration is by Jessie Willcox Smith, from A Child's Garden of Verses, 1905