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  • Jessica Ritchie

Happy (Belated) Birthday, John Irving!

"If you're lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it."

A Prayer for Owen Meany.

When I was in high school, I asked my English teacher which books she would teach if she didn't have to worry about the school board's guidelines. Without hesitation, she answered "Their Eyes Were Watching God and The World According to Garp." I'd already read The Cider House Rules, so I had a pretty good idea of why a John Irving book wouldn't make it on to any high school curriculums.

I got around to reading Garp a few years later and it is still one of my favorites. Normally, after I finish a book I love, I binge read the rest of the author's work. But John Irving books aren't made for binge reading. Irving books take time. A lot of time. I have to know I have a few days to devote to the book and a couple more to recover from it before I read the first page. I also need plenty of caffeine and snacks, because once I start reading, I have a hard time stopping.

If you're reading John Irving for the first time, my best advice is to make yourself as comfortable as possible, because whichever book you've chosen is going to make you at least a little bit uncomfortable. And then, you'll wonder what feeling uncomfortable with his subject matter says about you as a person. And then you may have to reread a few sections and reevaluate your reactions. And this is why it takes me three days to read a 300 page book. If you're easily offended, you probably shouldn't read him at all.

John Irving doesn't write to make people feel good, he writes to make people think. His books share the recurring themes of death, loss, abandonment, and sexual exploration and shame. Some of his characters are straight, some perform abortions, some are transgendered, and one is attracted to his sister. They are haunted, conflicted, and unapologetically flawed. They're also resilient, hilarious, and surprisingly relatable. No matter how painful their stories become, they keep passing the open windows. When they finally discover the lives they want, they find the courage to live them to the fullest, despite what anyone else thinks. And they will inspire you to do the same. Because, after all, in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.

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