Sunday, September 25, 2011

Curious Confessions of a Literary Nature

A recent commenter asked me if I have a list of all the books I've read. Unfortunately I don't have a list, but the comment sent me trudging through the backwaters of my brain, recollecting my evolution as a reader. And since this is my party and I'll blog what I want to, here's a post on my literary life.

     My mom says I learned to read when I was three. The first word I read (and I remember this) was the word ICE written in large red letters on an ice freezer outside a gas station. I enjoyed reading and my skill improved over the next few years. I don't remember going to libraries much at that point, but we didn't live near libraries then. My brothers and I had lots of children's books at home, and we often received books as gifts for Christmas or birthdays. Our parents read us bedtime stories at night, even after we could read well on our own. When I was in first grade I received a paperback set of 22 Moby Books Illustrated Classic Editions, which I read repeatedly. These are classic novels abridged for a young audience, and I wore some of them out. My favorites included Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, Little Women, Black Beauty, The Call of the Wild, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Wizard of Oz, and Sherlock Holmes.  These books were my first exposure to classic literature, and although they were extremely abridged and very adapted, I consider them fundamental to the development of my enjoyment of classic novels. You may notice that I have read a few of these titles and blogged on them this year; that is because I don't consider having read a 50 page adaptation to be equivalent to reading the novel itself.

     By third grade I was established as one of the better readers in my class, which established a positive feedback loop. From that point I was placed in the more advanced reading classes and given assignments with more difficult content. I can see how children who struggle with reading and are forced to read technically simple but content-poor assignments would not grow to love reading unless adults continued to read to them and expose them to new and interesting material.  Unfortunately, I must point out that most of what I read during reading class wasn't worth remembering. So many reading textbooks are cobbled together from little snippets of texts taken out of context. Teachers would do better to expose students to entire works. If that means sticking mainly to short stories, so be it. I don't know how many excerpts I read, never knowing how the story began or ended. No wonder some of my classmates were frustrated and found it to be a meaningless exercise. Starting in fifth grade, our classroom had a little lending library, just a couple of shelves, but it kept me busy. We didn't have video games at home, and we often didn't have a tv either, so I read a lot during my free time too. I was also somewhat introverted and didn't live near many of my friends anyway, so books were a great way to pass the time. By the time I finished elementary school, I had read many classic kids' series, such as The Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, and Anne of Green Gables, to name a few.  When I was in junior high, my mom bought me the Dover Thrift Editions volume Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. These Dover Thrift Editions were a dollar at the grocery store. This was my first exposure to poetry, and was, in retrospect, certainly instrumental in shaping my preferences for 19th century over that of any other. Currently I would say that Longfellow, Tennyson, Frost and Whitman are my favorite poets.

     As the oldest child, by the time I reached high school, I had outgrown the kids' books in the house and didn't have any older siblings to provide me with young adult books. My parents had their college textbooks, a set of encyclopedias, and a few other nonfiction books such as a Readers' Digest book of curious facts in American history. They also had some fiction, mainly western novels by Louis L'Amour. I read a Louis L'Amour novel but wasn't interested, so I read some of the college textbooks and other nonfiction, as well as random encyclopedia entries that interested me. Yes, this was long before home internet access! Then I read more of the college textbooks, including some of Goethe's Faust, although I was only about 14 at the time so a lot of it probably went over my head. My mom also had one volume of the Readers Digest abridged classics, in which I read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck multiple times, as well as The Scarlet Pimpernel. Our high school library was pretty spare too, consisting mainly of donations of current romance novels and American young adult fiction from the 1930s-1960s. After I got my drivers' license at age 15, I started frequenting the town library.  In our town of 1,500 people, I didn't actually need a library card, and the library itself was only a few bookcases of fiction and a few more of nonfiction. Still, over the next three years I read Michael Crichton, John Grisham and some other random fiction. My crowning achievement at that point was probably reading  Les Miserables unabridged at age 15, although it took me nearly all school year. I had taken it out of the public library, and there were no renewal notices or overdue fees, so I had it for about six months before returning it. In eleventh grade I took two English electives with Mrs. Rusten: Fiction and American Literature. In our fiction course we read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities and one other novel, the name of which unfortunately escapes me at the moment, but Fitzgerald and Dickens made a deep impression on me.

     When I went to a small rural college in southern Manitoba, I encountered the largest library I had ever seen. If you're thinking it wasn't actually very big, you're right. It was a research library consisting mainly of nonfiction, and I got my money's worth. During my four years there I read a lot.   <---understatement     Most of the books I read were related to my assignments, and I read fiction in the summers. I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland between books on linguistics and sociology. After graduating, I went to Kazakhstan to teach English for seven months, which was a challenging but enjoyable experience. I spent a lot of time planning lessons, but my four western housemates and I also had a lot of downtime. We didn't bring any books with us for leisure reading, and English reading material in that city was hard to come by.  At times my brain felt like it was gasping for intellectual air. (Okay, some of that may have been culture shock.) The American embassy had a small lending library for expats, its contents made up of whatever books visiting Americans had brought with them and then decided not to bring home with them. Now think about this. "The book was so bad that I can't spare 8 oz of luggage weight to bring it back, so I'll leave it at the embassy." That's right.  I read a lot of so-bad-it-was-fortunately-forgettable sci-fi, but the one rose among thorns, so to speak, was Orson Scott Card. I picked up Xenocide, not knowing it was third in a series, and couldn't put it down. Imagine my disappointment upon getting to the end and discovering that the last 30 pages were missing. I didn't find another copy of Xenocide until eight years later, but it was worth the wait. I then proceeded to read eight Orson Scott Card novels in about 10 days. He is now well-established as one of my favorite authors. After I got back from Kazakhstan, I stayed with my grandparents for two months while finding an apartment. I immediately proceeded to check out 20 books at a time from the library, sit down and read them in five days, and then take them back and exchange them for 20 more. I had to make up for lost time, you know.  (Of course, my reading slowed down considerably after I found a job.)

     After 4.5 years of marriage, our first child was born, followed by a second two years later. Thus began a period of very little reading which lasted about four years. With two small children and a job, I just didn't have time. We only lived a block from the public library, and I took the kids there a couple times a week to pick out new reads for them.  I would usually get a couple novels for myself, but only had a chance to open them during the kids' naptime, if at all.

     Now that my kids are school-age and can play by themselves without drowning or electrocuting each other, I make time in the early morning or in the evening to read. This is also made possible by them sleeping through the night, allowing my brain to maintain more than two synapses at once. Last year I noticed that, although I was reading a lot, I was often choosing books that weren't very challenging and books that were in the "new releases" section of the library, as that section is located near the front. I had a lot of classic novels on my shelf that were always getting put off to some later (unspecified) time. Remembering my past enjoyment of Dickens, Hugo, Fitzgerald and others, I finally decided to tackle the volumes languishing on my shelves, and in the process I have been led down various rabbit trails to wonderful books that I wasn't even aware of two years ago. Although I won't be reading a classic novel a week next year (the rule necessarily limits the length of books I can read this year-no War and Peace for me), I will continue to set out a syllabus month by month and keep to it.  The fact that I'm still excited about this after nearly a year tells me I'm doing something right.


bren j. said...

I remember all those stacks of college books well. And having multiple bags in the back seat of the car to get them all home! :)

Kara said...

Yes were a most accommodating roommate!

Anne Ylvisaker said...

Loved reading this! So this is a chicken and the egg sort of thing. You are such an interesting person so you chose interesting books even from a young age - and interesting books raised an interesting person. Now I want to go back and trace my reading career. I don't think I'll be as good at recall! Thanks for sharing.