I can still remember the first time I held an Ernest Hemingway book in my hands. It was the summer before my senior year of high school, and The Sun Also Rises was among the many titles we could choose from to read and report back on in the fall. As I wandered my way through the aisles of the bookstore (you know I wasn’t leaving there with only one book), excited about the opportunity to learn what this Hemingway guy was all about, a well-meaning (I’m sure) but way out-of-line fellow customer asked about my list. She was a teacher. She knew about these things. When she saw The Sun Also Rises under my arm, she said, “Oh, no, you don’t want to read this. This is a boy book. I know what you should read.” She took the book from my hands, and like a fool, I let her. She handed me another title from the list by a famous female author and sent me on my way with a satisfied smile on her face. Was I offended? Sure, but I was also sixteen and didn’t want to make a big deal and it was summer and she seemed to know what she was talking about. So I left Papa Hemingway on the shelf and left the store with a book that was so dark, I couldn’t get past the second chapter.
(It all worked out in the end. I borrowed my mother’s copy of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist and, naturally, it was wonderful.)
Cut to: One year later, my first semester of my freshman year of college, when The Sun Also Rises showed up on a class syllabus. My first reaction as I started reading it: Dear God, I’m in love with Ernest Hemingway. My second reaction: I could have fallen in love with him last year if it weren’t for that pesky woman!
But, you know, I don’t hold a grudge.
I’ll never forget the sentence that swung me over the moon, the sentence that has continued to get me in the dozen times I’ve read the book over the past 17 years: “With them was Brett. She looked very lovely and was very much with them.” So simple, so beautiful, and so very telling of the way the narrator, Jake Barnes, felt about Lady Brett Ashley. I was three chapters in, and I was already a goner. Ernest Hemingway was my new forever literary boyfriend.
Putting aside the fact that there are no such things as girl books and boy books, I don’t think that my fellow patron meant any harm. When people think about Hemingway, they think about bull fighting and boxing and drinking and hunting, and I was probably rocking my bright pink purse and some Candies and humming a Jewel song. (Loved her then, love her now.) But here’s the thing about Papa H.—his books are not about any of those things. His books are about strong men and women, broken men and women. They’re about love. They’re sensitive. They’re about human beings and the many facets of the human spirit. They’re the most beautifully written books in the world. Who wouldn’t want to read them?
My literary love affair with Papa has only grown stronger over the years. I have read and re-read his works so many times, and never once have I ceased to be awestruck by the gorgeousness of his sentences, how in so few words he could convey so much about life, about feelings, about people. I’ve obsessed over his characters, from Robert Jordan to Catherine Barkley to Santiago and his sea. I’ve followed his trails in Key West, basking in his glory at Sloppy Joe’s, ignoring my allergies for the chance to wander through his cat-laden house until they practically had to throw me out. (Twice.) I’ve cried at the sight of his writing studio and his typewriter. I’ve told everyone I know about the time I got to see his blood-stained army uniform and boxing gloves at the Key West Museum of Art & History.
I truly can’t say it enough: I love Ernest Hemingway.
So as I sit here writing this in my softened For Whom the Bell Tolls t-shirt, drinking from my Sloppy Joe’s mug and staring at the framed sketch of his writing studio on my desk, I am beyond grateful that the woman who discouraged me from reading a “boy book” wasn’t my stopping point. Would I like to go back in time and give her a diatribe about gender biases and the importance of reading widely and maybe just maybe accidentally step on her foot? Of course. But closing herself off to the beauty of Hemingway is her loss. And besides, I’m much too busy re-reading my favorite passages of A Moveable Feast and talking about the time I saw Hem’s blood-stained uniform.
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you are finished reading one you feel that it all happened to you and after which it all belongs to you.” ~Ernest Hemingway