I needed to return some books today, so I ambled over to our local library. Our house is only about 3 blocks away, tucked back behind it in a charming neighborhood. We specifically picked this house in order to be close to the library. I walked in the door and felt like saying, “Honey, I’m home!”
I like to read. I am a bibliophile. Everyone say it with me: “Hi, Susan!”
I remember going to the library at my grade school, Irvington Elementary. I remember the librarian, an older black lady whose name escapes me now, reading stories with marvelous pictures. Some of those very early books included James and the Giant Peach and The Little Engine that Could. She would read the page, then turn the book to face us and display it for all to see. I remember correcting my mom on this very important point of story reading. She did not appreciate it.
The library was my first church, my sanctuary. It was silent, cool and inviting. The musty smell of old books intoxicated me. What adventures did they hold? My mom encouraged my voracious appetite for reading. I read during daycare, when we weren’t doing all the crafts. We made a lot of little pillows for some reason. We had a little area with chairs and throw pillows (hello, 70s!) and some great books. I picked up Little Women there. I saved my meager allowance to buy all the Little House on the Prairie books. I had to know what happened to the opinionated, impetuous Laura and whether Almanzo (what a name!) was worthy of her. I read The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Eight Cousins, Greek mythology, and on and on.
Reading allowed me to escape into other worlds and get away from my own confusing one. My mom let me read any book in the house. She kept nothing from me.
Our grade school hosted a version of a national program every year called RIF: Reading is Fundamental. I’m sure some will remember that program. You could buy books there. Imagine! I wanted to buy every book. I picked up the paperbacks lovingly, willing them to tell me their secrets. But alas, there was no money to buy books. But I was not without resources. Each kid would get one book for free. Free! I was in heaven and it took me forever to choose.
Words were like lullabies to me. Because I loved reading so much, I excelled in English or Literature classes. In the 4th grade, we read The Odyssey, skipping over the “inappropriate” parts. Fifth grade was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Reading books from different eras by authors from other countries fascinated me. Discovering that a person’s culture or time in history dictated the outcome of their stories was a revelation to me. Authors were driven by what sold – still are – and what truth they want to express. I remember reading The Outsiders in 8th grade, spellbound by the world of gangs in the 1960s south. I remember reading The Diary of Anne Frank and thinking she was very brave and wondering how I would behave under similar circumstances.
In high school, it got even more interesting. Being on the college prep track meant for junior year we read American literature – Spoon River Anthology, Red Badge of Courage, Billy Budd, The Great Gatsby, Grapes of Wrath, Fahrenheit 451, and many others. We talked about them. We wrote about them. We lived inside the book, thinking like the characters.
Nerd to the core, I loved it. I didn’t love every book, of course, but I read them all.
Senior year was similar, only it was world literature. We read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (again), Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, The Iliad, Gulliver’s Travels, Hard Times, Heart of Darkness, Gulliver’s Travels, All Quiet on the Western Front – not in this order, of course. We put them in the context of the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Industrial Revolution, and the World Wars, to name a few historical periods.
After high school, I figured I’d just run down a list of the classics and read them one by one. I read a few – Anna Karenina (depressing!), Jane Eyre (strange and mystical), and several others. I kinda lost my taste for it. It seemed like…work. And nobody in my family shared my desire to read and discuss and think about the books, to understand and glean from them.
When I got to college, being a music major, I was all about mastering theory, performing and composing music, fitting in reading when and where I could. I didn’t get excited about reading real literature again until my junior year of college in Dr. Don Ryall’s Early American Literature class; I required an upper division English class. I heard he was a tough teacher, demanding excellence from his students.Yet, it was fun again. I was encouraged to consider a double major – music and literature. But I just wanted to be done with school by then. Then I took Shakespeare from him, forewarned that it was a tough class. Loved that, too, and did well.
I look back now and feel my life is much richer for all the books I’ve read, and I don’t just snobbily read the “classics”. I read the Bible pretty much every day. It’s a mainstay, my constant source of truth. I’ve become more careful about what I read now. I feel with the characters and their predicaments. I find that books can add to me or take away from me. I can no longer read any Amy Tan; her stories are too sad. I like historical fiction but sometimes get bogged down in the descriptions. I don’t read romances anymore, for the most part. Too unrealistic and sometimes borderline pornographic. I can’t read any horror stories- no Stephen King or that ilk. I find myself drawn to mysteries and books with complex characters. Books always have something to teach if we’re willing to learn. And I continue to patronize my local library, where the books come alive.