John Updike's "Pigeon Feathers" saved my life. As a teenager in the 1980s, I found myself burdened by the hard religious teachings of my youth and the failure of the adults in my life to apply their professed beliefs to the world around me. At the age of seventeen this tension reached its peak as the AIDS crisis loomed and the sub-culture of my parents' world failed to meet the need for compassion toward people who were HIV positive. I was always an avid reader and books had opened my eyes to a bigger world. But now my heart was stretched taught in a way that was increasingly painful. I had learned that a classmate of mine had contracted HIV. I could not fathom a way to reconcile spirituality with the world around me. A new literature teacher at my High School probed my writing assignments and offered the short story "Pigeon Feathers" to me as a gift. I must have read that story a hundred times. I was far done with platitudes and John Updike was not serving any. I found humanity in that story. The story left me with hope, even if it did not dispel all of my doubts. Updike had the restraint to observe and then leave unanswered questions whose subject was nebulous and difficult, the author's privilege and courtesy to give more light than heat.
I have found this trait in other authors since and I learned to read for many other reasons than seeking guidance. I was lucky enough to talk to John Updike before he passed away. It was wonderful to have the chance to relate this anecdote to him.