A Reading Life

This has been a good week for books. Patti Smith, in accepting her National Book Award for Just Kids, made an impassioned plea for the future of the book, rejoicing in the materiality of the book form. On the NYRB blog, Claudia Gonson of the Magnetic Fields related her literary biography. This exercise is important, I think, to know where we’re coming from as readers and thinkers.

I can’t remember not reading. There were always books around, my step-dad and grampa were avid readers (dad of sci-fi and grampa of westerns), and I had at least as many books as toys as a child. Classics like The Three Little Kittens (which was written in the 19th c. by Eliza Lee Follen, who now figures heavily in my dissertation) and the Little Golden Books taught me to read and I never stopped.

Some of my most vivid childhood memories are not of events and action but of books. I recall the summer I spent reading an unabridged Swiss Family Robinson outside on the lawn, how the imprint of mashed grass took hours to leave my elbow and thighs at the end of the day. The companions in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain were my friends and I shared eagerly in their joys and sorrows. I recently re-read them all and was startled by how powerful my response was to the tales.

Encouraged by my dad and uncle, I picked up The Hobbit in second grade. It took me a year to read it by myself, but I did it, and then re-read it again and again. I didn’t get to The Lord of the Rings trilogy until junior high, but they too became annual reads. Likewise Dune. From my grampa, I got Shane and Monte Walsh. Even as a jaded sixteen-year old I wept openly at the end of Monte Walsh. It has been nearly twenty years since I lost my grampa, but revisiting these books, or the many Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour paperbacks he left behind makes me feel close to him and keeps my memories of him sharp and clear.

Andre Norton and Ursula Leguin were particular favorites of my father’s and became mine as well, though I don’t recall ever discussing them with him until I was an adult, and that fairly recently when we both re-read The Left Hand of Darkness. It was a revelation to me that Norton was a woman writing under a pseudonym, and my pleasure in her writing and LeGuin’s later led me to Eleanor Arneson, Octavia Butler, and other women sci-fi writers. I also enjoy “sociological sci-fi” more than “hard science” sci-fi, so these writers met my particular needs better than many of their male counterparts.

I never read much realistic, contemporary kidlit. I wasn’t interested in Ramona or The Outsiders. And I hated, hated (and still do) The Catcher in the Rye. Those characters and situations just didn’t speak to me as a kid reader. I longed for fantasy, or the distance of history.

It wasn’t until college that I discovered Burroughs, Acker, Ginsberg, and Ellis. I also never read poetry in my teens, but fell madly for Ted Hughes and Phillip Larkin, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, as an undergrad.

Now that reading has become for me a profession, I return to many of these texts that formed me as a reader again and again to refresh myself and to maintain pleasure in the act of reading. Whenever the scholarly life threatens to leach the color out of reading and my analytical mind starts to restrict my imagination, I re-read The Book of Three or Dune, or Shane to remind myself that there is pleasure in books as well as labor, and to make sure that the labor is a labor of love.

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