The Avid Reader

Starkville Friends of the Library board member BRENDA HARDEN doesn’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t enjoy reading. “When I was a child, I had an extended illness — two to three weeks — and my mother brought home some Nancy Drew mysteries. I was transported! I visited exciting places, had grand adventures and never even got out of my pajamas.” Harden was hooked. She found a literary mentor in high school English teacher Betsy Didlake, who introduced Harden to a plethora of great works, including those of William Faulkner, through extracurricular reading assignments. Worried that some of the content might be a bit too ‘adult’ for her young charge, Didlake told Brenda to ask her mom if it was OK for her to read Faulkner’s Sanctuary. Ever encouraging, her mother responded, “If Mrs. Didlake says you should read it, that’s good enough for me.” Following in their footsteps, Harden passed on a love of reading to her sons and spent a decade teaching English and reading at Henderson Middle School in Starkville, influencing classrooms of avid readers of her own.

1. Southeastern Louisiana University Writer-in-Residence Timothy Gautreaux first drew Harden’s attention with his book of short stories, Welding with Children. That work, along with two of his novels, The Missing and The Clearing, won him a place in her top five. “All of his books are set in Louisiana, so maybe it’s the ‘southernness’ I relate to. He has a wonderful sense of humor and tells stories that are simply mesmerizing.”

2. Stanford University of Medicine professor Abraham Verghese found a loyal fan in Harden with his first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story. “It’s an autobiography about his experience with the rural AIDS epidemic while practicing medicine in east Tennessee. It tells of the insights Verghese gained from the relationships he formed with the terminally ill and the suffering he witnessed — insights he describes as intensely transformative.” In his second book, The Tennis Partner: A Story of Friendship and Loss, he tells another very personal story about his friend and tennis partner’s struggle with addiction. Verghese’s latest release, Cutting for Stone, is his first novel — a book Harden says she “enjoyed about as much as any book I’ve ever read.”

3. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is an historical novel made up of a series of letters between a newspaper columnist named Juliet and members of a book club on the island of Guernsey during the German occupation in the 1940s. “Do you ever just love the way an author’s voice sounds in your head? I read this book cover-to-cover, set it aside for a few days to let it rest, then picked it up and read it again.”

4. Harden has read two of Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson series — The Passage of Power and Means of Assent.  (The other two books in the series are The Path to Power and Master of the Senate.) “These books are fascinating and meticulously researched … thanks, in large part, to his wife, Ina.”

5. Journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Maraniss’ biography Barak Obama: The Story, “reads like a novel and is written in such a way that I could hardly put it down.” A fortunate turn of events in Nashville made friends of Harden’s and Maraniss’ sons. The result, Harden’s Mother’s Day gift — a copy of the biography signed by its author.

Notable mention  While listening to NPR’s “Under the Radar” segment, Harden picked up on a book recommendation from Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl. “Heft by Liz Moore is the fascinating story of an unlikely friendship between two characters who could not be more different — a reclusive, morbidly obese, former literature professor and a handsome, popular, ambitious high school baseball player. The characters are drawn with such emotional truth and depth, they are unforgettable. You desperately want good things to happen for both of them.”

Harden is also a fan of authors Larry Brown, Walter Mosely, Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel Garcia Márquez and P. D. James.