My reading life
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