From time to time a book comes along that reminds you of why you love to read. It transports you to a completely different world where amazing things are possible and people are capable of feats that can only be dreamed of in real life. And for the short time you’re engulfed in that world, you feel like you’re able to be more than you are, do more than you do, which inspires you to actually become more, to be better. When I read books like those, I feel sad for people who say they don’t enjoy reading.
But even more rarely — maybe even once or twice in a lifetime — a book comes along that you know will change your life forever. That will be with you, in your heart and in your soul, until the day you die. Melodramatic? Maybe. Will you, who love reading as much as I do, understand completely? Absolutely.
For me, the first, and I thought only, time that happened was when I read Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. The nobility, the simple dignity, the self-sacrifice all made me truly want to be a better person. I’ve striven since to live the lessons taught by the humility and selflessness of Jean Valjean.
Little did I suspect that I was in for a similar experience when I pulled the paper out of a gift bag on Christmas day. It was from my parents. They told me that they somehow learned that the clerk at the bookstore where they were trying to find a book I would enjoy happened to be a former student of mine. When they told her what book they were considering, she said no, that wouldn’t do and recommended instead Mitch Albom’s The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto. Looking back on it, I see that this was a true Frankie Presto moment, in which my influence over that young life came back around to me in a way I never could have anticipated.
The book, narrated by music personified, tells the story of Frankie Presto, who is born in the midst of the chaos of civil war in Spain. Abandoned, he’s found by a bedraggled black hairless dog and taken in by the dog’s owner, who quickly realizes that Frankie is a musical prodigy that needs training to take advantage of his gift. After being rejected by a music school, Frankie’s adoptive father finds a bitter, drunken man who also happens to be one of the greatest guitarists to ever have lived. Known to Frankie as El Maestro, the man is begrudgingly taken in by Frankie’s prodigious talent and agrees to take the young boy under his wing.
The book, which can best be described as magical realism, follows Frankie as he grows up, travels all over the world, finds the love of his life, loses the love of his life, gets her back, loses her again and finally finds her when he finds himself. She, Aurora, is the only thing in the world that Frankie loves as much as music. And it is those two loves that define the often seemingly (seemingly being the operative term) chaotic life of Frankie Presto.
The frame of the book is that the greatest musicians in the world (actual real-world musicians who gave Albom permission to use them in his story) are gathering to mourn the death of the great but enigmatic musician, Frankie Presto. In between narratives that fill in the history of Frankie’s life, we hear personal reflections from these musicians who were influenced by Frankie’s other-worldly musical talent, but even more so by his sad, humble soul.
I could go on for pages and pages about this book, but I don’t want to take the chance of spoiling all the sad, tragic, heartbreaking, funny, uplifting, soul-filling, life-affirming moments. I will tell you that the last time I cried this hard was when Dumbledore died. As I write this, thinking back on the last fifty pages of this book, I still have a lump in my throat.
You need to read this book. When you do, you will learn, as I have, that, to quote the book from about a hundred different pages, “everyone joins a band in this life,” and it’s those bands that shape you. But, even more importantly, it’s you who will shape those other band members, who will shape others, who will shape still others.
So don’t read this book if you don’t want to cry — and I mean ugly cry. And don’t read it if you don’t want to see the world — and your place in it — in a completely new and clearer way. Because you will at the end, whether you want to or not.