My reading life

Dear Reader:

I’ve been writing some heavy stuff lately and thought it would be fun to switch gears and talk a little about my reading history.  I’d love to hear yours, so please tell me about it in the comments section.

I wasn’t one of those amazing kids who taught themselves to read – but I know I was read to a lot and that my parents were passionate readers.  I remember singing the “Kissing” song to my father when I was three or four (“sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g”) and him telling me that I was spelling a word.  That astonished me.  I remember learning to read with big Dick and Jane books propped up in my very chaotic 1st grade classroom.  By the time I was seven, books were a huge part of my life – I remember books I was reading then, books I owned, and books people gave me.

A funny quirk of my reading life was that I grew up in a tiny, historic upstate New York village of 500 called Gilbertsville where we moved when I was eight.  We had (and the village still has) a tiny, beautiful Carnegie library (see below for a picture).  It had very limited hours and holdings, but I loved it.  When my parents wanted to really punish me, they took away my library card.

Growing up, the family bookshelves ended up in my room covering one whole wall of the room.    They contained about half and half my books and adult books (some quite weird, my father was a biologist who worked for a drug company).  I probably had as many books in my room as the library had kid and young adult books.

One of the things I remember well was reading book series – early on, things like Dr. Suess, but then Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, Albert Payson Terhune’s Laddy series, and the Junior Deluxe Edition series that my parents found at an auction (this was a terrific series with books like Toby Tyler, the Little Peppers etc).

I was definitely one of those kids who always had a book (I still do).  I never had as time as I wished to read (we did the Mother Earth News “homesteading” thing with a big garden, acres of lawns, all kinds of small livestock) and I still feel that way.  Reading was my passion, my refuge, my saving grace.

Growing up in a tiny village, I don’t think I really saw bookstores until I was in college.  We did use to go to a neighboring county which built an amazing and wonderful county library from which I could borrow books.  But when I hit college at the University of Chicago, famous for the Great Books curriculum, with 8 million books in our university libraries, and a wonderful mix of used and new bookstores in Hyde Park, I was in heaven.  I spent more time reading and finding books that had nothing to do with my classes than actually studying for my classes and left the university after two heady years.

At that time, I was very influenced by books I’d encountered in high school and authors I saw in college – I loved Aldous Huxley, Sinclair Lewis, and Jorge Luis Borges (I saw him speak).  I bought books with a special eye to collecting theirs.  This is more than 30 years ago and over the decades, I’ve moved a lot, jettisoned lots of books, but steadily built my library nonetheless.

My tastes have run to science fiction and fantasy (such as Lord of the Rings) early on, but for a long time, have focused on literary fiction, classics, and mysteries.  I’ve spent years absorbing authors in particular regions – such as the many excellent Russian 19th century authors.  One of my life ambitions is to become really well-versed in the American and British classics, particularly by women, in some French authors’ work (Proust, Zola, Balzac, Flaubert), and in a number of my favorite Russians (Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov).  At 50, I have plenty of time to do this if I focus now.

Today, I have all of Sue Miller’s, Flannery O’Connor’s, and Alice Munro’s works.  And multiple books by lots of other authors – mostly women – some of whom I’ve talked about before.  One of the things I’ve appreciated as I work on this year of thoughtful reading without buying more than a few books is that I do have a good library.  If I’m drifting around touching on authors and realizing that there is one I’d like to read – odds are I have one or more of their books already.

For awhile, I worked in remote areas in Conservation Corps and, thank god, had a subscription to Quality Paperback Books.  Then I started to live in towns with good bookstores again: Berkeley, CA; Syracuse, NY; Seattle, WA…

I’ve lived in a remote part of the upper Midwest for 16 years – we do have some nice bookstores in town and in the nearest “big” town about 100 miles away.  But in the time I’ve lived here, buying online has also become easy.  I’ve spent lots of $ in my local bookstores and in independents I’ve sought out during my many travels.  And then in the last couple years, I’ve had a kindle which is game changing.

So, to come full circle, a great day for me is a day largely spent with my nose in book, getting lost in other people’s words.  It has been that way for over 40 years.

What about you?  What’s your reading story?

Happy Reading!  Ruby

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10 Comments

  1. Awesome reading story! You and I kind of have the exact same story! I remember reading my Dad’s Dick and Jane books every time I went over to my Grandma’s house. She also was always buying me books to take home too! I grew up in a very small town, of about 500 people as well. We had a Carnegie Library that was teeny, tiny. I would spend HOURS in there looking for books to read. I then moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan where not only is there a FIVE story library right downtown, but MANY “smaller” libraries all over! When I first started going to these libraries, I felt like I was in heaven. I wish I could remember the name/author to the first chapter book I remember finishing. I’d love to read it again!! Haha. Even though I was six years old! Anyways. Sorry for the long comment, haha!

    P.s. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

    • Hi Stephany: Thanks for visiting my blog and for writing. Our reading stories ARE very similar. I wonder if people like us who love books but have somewhat limited access as we grow up appreciate the broader access of big libraries and bookstores that much more when we get it… We have another parallel – I live in the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan – very far from Grand Rapids (about 10 hours) but the same state nonetheless, happy reading, Ruby

  2. Mary

    I was always read to as a child and I still can recite most nursery rhymes by heart, a dubious skill for an adult. I learned to read before I went to school. As a child, I had lots of books and can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a library card. My favorite book as a child was Lucille Morrison’s The Lost Queen of Egypt (which I would buy right now for my Kindle if it was available). My parents never restricted what I was allowed to read with one exception. My father told me to stop reading Bobbsey twin books because they were junk, but never restricted me from John Steinbeck at an early age even though they contained a lot of adult stuff. In high school I went through a long poetry phase and carried around a couple of poetry anthologies all the time but other than that, everything I read for pleasure was fiction, probably 5 books a week. By the way, we had a Carnegie library in the town where I finished high school.

    This changed in college where I majored in history and began to read history books for pleasure. As an adult, I bought very little fiction since I could check it out of the library. I did buy some non-fiction, especially regarding my obsessions—knitting and quilting, with some forays into macrame and embroidery. And I have lots of cookbooks. But none of those are books for long-form reading.

    The Kindle changed things. I don’t know what my intention had been when I bought it, but found myself buying more and more fiction and cherishing the fact that I had access to my library at any time. It has caused me to re-read some fiction books, which surprised me because I didn’t consider myself a re-reader, with a few exceptions. The Kindle is also a joy because I can enlarge the font when I need to. I have actually checked books out of the library, decided the font was too small, and bought them to read on the Kindle. Also there are books I own in both print and Kindle form.

    My favorite book of all time is Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop.

    • Hi Mary: Thanks for writing – I enjoyed reading your description of your reading life. I’ve never heard of the Lost Queen of Egypt – I will have to look for it. That’s funny that your father didn’t want you to read the Bobbsey twins – I didn’t read much of them, but I do remember them being pretty fluffy.

      As you may have read, I’m a knitter and cook as well. I don’t have that many knitting books, but I have a lot of cookbooks.

      I don’t reread a lot either (I’m always impressed when people casually talk about having read a book multiple times) – you made me think that maybe that is one of the things I should do this year, find a couple of books that had a lot of impact on me when I was a young adult and reread them. It will be interesting to see what has changed in my impression.

      I am so excited to hear that your favorite book is Death Comes for the Archbishop – I have not read it yet (I have read that it is one of her best), but I have it, I’ll move that up to next in my Cather list. Have you read any of her other work?

      Happy reading, Ruby

  3. karin

    I remember a very similar path to yours. The Kindergarten I attended had us reading from a large book in the front of the class. I worked out my first words from condiment bottles that were on the Kitchen table. Kraft was the first word I read outside of class. Our parents read to us all the time. Dr. Seuss’ sleep book was my favorite. Little House in the Big Woods, was the first book I read to myself, then the Chronicles of Narnia. I have an older brother that loves to read as much as I do, and I always had to read what he was reading. Scholastic readers were big when I was in grade school. In 6th grade I found Madeleine L’engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and that was the start of my lifelong love of Fantasy/Science Fiction. I measure every Fantasy with Tolkien, and every Science Fiction with Asimov. I loved libraries and I became a librarian in 1983. I have a huge library and I had to buy a Kindle for survival, I was running out of space. To be honest, I would rather read on my Kindle than a physical book. It is a dream that one day all books will be in digital format.

    Karin

    • Hi Karin: Thanks for writing. Funny how so many of our paths take the same curves! Oh, I remember Scholastic readers – hadn’t thought of them in forever. I love Madeleine L’engle, loved Tolkien and Asimov – but not much after that from those genres…. and I’ve always though library science could have been a cool career path.

      Sometimes I find it really hard to switch from a kindle to a hard copy book – but if I read them for awhile, I get back in the habit. Kindles ARE really amazing, they do so many more things than just give you fast access to Amazon books… Happy reading! Ruby

  4. Hey ruby! I have an English degree but actually hated to read all the way through college and well after. Turns out I was reading the wrong stuff, but I love to read now!

    • Hi Beth: Thanks for writing – sometimes I think I should take some literature classes, but then I realize that sometimes you can make fun stuff not fun depending upon how you approach it – sounds like your experience, happy reading, Ruby

  5. I really liked the article, and the very cool blog

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  1. What’s the coolest thing you’ve found in a book? « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books

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