My career as a shoplifter began with a novel. Mom allowed me two books per trip to the Crown Books in the mall, and that month, the Babysitter’s Club series had put out a double serving, which I had to have.
The book I covetedwas small and black. Its cover featured an unremarkable gray silhouette and a title I recognized from a list of books deemed by my school board “inappropriate for 6th-8th grade summer reading.”
This was The Giver, by Lois Lowry.
I slipped the book into my cavernous parka pocket. I reached into my pocket after crossing the store’s threshold, pinching those yet-unread pages between my fingers. I’d been sure the book would disappear once we left its rightful home.
I told my mom this story as a teenager, years later, after I’d been caught shoplifting collectible trolls at the convenience store next to my junior high school.
“I would have bought it for you!” she cried. “For god’s sake, it wasn’t Nikes you wanted. It was a book.”
Maybe I wanted to steal The Giver because The Giver wanted to be taken. I was twelve years old and ripe for subversion. Inside, that is what I found, though in none of the ways I expected. A story of a society perfect because of its rules, its discipline; a society that has mastered emotion, complex feelings (which I had begun to have myself, at twelve, about all kinds of things), a people that existed without pain because they had learned to control its source. And what an astonishing source: memory.
We all know the story. The Giver’s twelve-year-old protagonist, Jonas, lives in a world of black and white—literally. He sees no color. A pill swallowed daily controls his budding sexual urges, makes him complacent. At his passage into adulthood and a career, he is the only child who does not receive an assignment. He is special—a status we all suspect of ourselves, especially at that age. His assignment, when it’s finally revealed, is to be the sole inheritor of humanity’s collective memory. He will know the horror of war, of discrimination and oppression, the suffering of unrequited love, and loss. He will discover death.
But Jonas also receives good memories. The way the book explains the process of memory-reception, they seem to be downloaded into his brain one at a time. The smell of rain. Love. Freedom. The feel of grass underfoot. Amazingly, Jonas starts to remember and perceive color.
Lowry’s choice to associate the ability to see colors with Jonas’s increasing awareness as he receives memories stuck with me for years. How were color vision and memory connected? I felt like the answer had something to do with capital-K Knowledge—with wisdom, and a shadowy, secret knowing. That dark connective space haunted me. I wondered about it aloud during my conversations with myself at night, prompting my mom to enter my room repeatedly and tell me to be quiet. It was a thing that lived in my lower gut and excited me in a way that felt forbidden. Sexual before I knew what sexual meant. I’d had no idea books could have that kind of power.
Sight and knowledge were one and the same. I began to ask, How do I see? What are my eyes missing? I played a game—a game I still play when I find myself stranded without reading material, waiting for a bus or in line for groceries—in which I looked for details I was sure no one else would spot. Socks were my go-to. For an only child with an audacious sense of specialness, playing this game nurtured my belief that I was unique, that I was like Jonas: chosen.
This obsession with visual detail made me a writer. Or perhaps that’s too strong a statement. I was already writing when I read The Giver and started noticing. But I believe the book made me an observer, which is what writers really need to be.
Concretizing a concept as slippery as memory fascinated me. Could memories really be added to or removed from the container of the brain like so many marbles? When I discovered the field of cognitive science as an undergraduate, I felt like it was made for me—a discipline that attempts to map how the brain works, puts forth the idea, so long taboo in psychology, that our minds are not black boxes, but knowable; predictable processes guide their functioning. Years later, I started exploring these ideas when I began seriously writing fiction.
One of the earliest stories I wrote that played with ideas kindled by The Giver was about a toaster that could predict the way a person’s going to die. This was in 2007. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was trying to investigate the ways in which people deal with knowledge, which burdens as often as it enlightens. Given a choice, would you want to know how you were gonna go? How would that information change the way you lived? It was the first time I felt like I was being guided as I wrote: I knew what would come next, and next, and next. I wanted more of that feeling.
Looking back at my journal from that period in 2007, I see that I re-read The Giver right around the time I started writing about the toaster. There’s no connection made between the two in journal; instead I talked about the book making the rounds at my boyfriend’s place, a bachelor pad in East Palo Alto that housed four software engineers. I was so proud of my ambassadorship, of how the book had affected them, that I paid little attention to how it was affecting me. I see now that Lois Lowry and The Giver gave me many early permissions: permission to investigate the mind via literature, permission to observe closely; permission to question, permission to defy.
Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Southern Review, New England Review, Crazyhorse, and other magazines. She’s a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, TX.