Eight Memories of Reading
One: Shy Fiction*
I remember the first time I wrote my name in cursive. My second grade teacher, Mrs. Ball, had pulled yellow lines across the chalkboard with a three-pronged chalk holder, and the class went up, row by row, and drew our first names on them. When I’d finished writing “Jill,” the clouds broke, and a beam of light shot through the bank of windows by the teacher’s desk, spotlighting the golden letters. It was quite a moment.
Strangely, I don’t recall learning to read. In fact, I don’t remember ever not being able to. No children’s books were significant to me as a child, and we didn’t have a lot of them around the house.
My sister, who is almost ten years older than I am, had a cabinet of children’s novels, mostly Nancy Drew, as well as a bookcase of paperbacks. Perhaps that’s why my parents didn’t buy me any: they thought I could read hers. They didn’t know she jealously guarded them, refusing to let me read even a page. So I went to the public library. We lived in a small town, and I’d walk there myself. It was the sixties, and parents weren’t afraid to let children out of their sights, something for which I am thankful. I was blissfully neglected and had hours and hours of unsupervised play and uncontrolled thought.
I was extremely shy, too shy to ask where the children’s books were located, so the first books I read were adult novels and poems. These were located in the perfect spot for the extremely bashful— near the front door and the check-out desk.
My friends and I visited a small grocery store called Everett’s almost every day when school was in session. It was a small, dark place with an oiled wooden floor and narrow aisles jammed with groceries, mostly junk food. We’d buy bottles of lemon juice and, on the street outside, dare each other to chug them.
In the summer, I often stopped at Everett’s for a bottle of pop on my way to the library. Then I’d turn onto Church Street past the dry cleaners and round the corner to the old library, a low brown building that, in my grandmother’s day, had been the town stable.
I was extremely shy, too shy to ask where the children’s books were located, so the first books I read were adult novels and poems. These were located in the perfect spot for the extremely bashful— near the exit and the check-out desk.
I remember reading all of Dickens and Dumas first. The D’s were about eye-level for me then. (Later, when I was taller but still horribly shy, I read Alcott and the Brontës.) I remember checking out Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, too, not for prurient reasons— I didn’t know the book’s reputation— but because my parents owned a farm with a tobacco allotment, and the road leading to it was called Tobacco Road. The librarian called my mother, and I had to return it before I’d read one word. I was mortified, and to this day I have not read Tobacco Road.
The bookcases across from the circulation desk held a small collection of poetry. I read and reread Longfellow, the “children’s poet,” and memorized huge chunks:
The day is done, and
darkness falls from the wings of night,
as a feather is wafted downward
from an eagle in his flight.
I remember sitting in my little brown rocker, looking out the picture window in our den and thinking how wonderful it would be to write something as beautiful as that.
A student once told me how she’d put off reading the end of an assigned novel for over a week— not out of laziness or because she’d been too busy, but simply because she didn’t want it to end. That’s how I felt when I came to the last of Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series.
Two: Why I Love Mysteries
Is it grisly murder that attracts readers to mystery fiction? A fascination with crime? Some morbid attraction to death? Probably not. In fact, I’d say that lovers of mysteries crave just the opposite: social order and balance and justice. Think about it. A mystery novel revolves around one clearly defined problem, and at its conclusion the case is closed. Order restored. Problem solved. Perhaps it’s more unlike life than any other genre, even fantasy/science fiction.
I first began reading mysteries in college when I discovered that scholar Dorothy L. Sayers wrote them. A student once told me how she’d put off reading the end of an assigned novel for over a week— not out of laziness or because she’d been too busy, but simply because she didn’t want it to end. That’s how I felt when I came to the last of Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey series.
Although I missed Lord Peter and his mystery-writing wife Harriet Vane, I moved on to other mystery series, Crispin’s Gervase Fen books and Simenon’s seemingly endless Magrait mood pieces, to name a few.
I probably read mysteries most during my first marriage. At a time when order and balance was most lacking in my life, I craved it, and I found it in the novels of Mortimer and Marsh, McCall Smith and Tey, Van Gulik and Christie and Keating.
I read mysteries occasionally now, too. Last week I stayed up until four reading Denise Mina’s Deception. It was suspenseful and clever, and Mina’s unreliable narrator was engaging. Best of all, though, was the resolution: problem solved.
Once when I moved into a house across from a public library, my grandmother said, “Good, now you won’t have to buy so many books.”
Three: First Books
My cousin Pat Boster gave me the first book I remember as being my very own. It was an enormous illustrated Children’s Bible, and I read it from cover to cover more than once. Later, I received Webster’s 13th Collegiate Dictionary from Santa. It was wedged under the tree next to a large, hot pink piggy bank. It was a beautiful tome in navy blue with the title, encased in a laurel wreath, embossed on front in gold. I read it as if I were Malcolm X in prison, from cover to cover, beginning with the A’s.
One would think we were poor by how few books I had, but we weren’t. My parents owned a home with a large yard, a farm, a department store, and several vehicles. We even had a cleaning lady and someone to do the yard.
I think my lack of books was mostly because I rarely asked for anything, although once I did ask my mother for two small books, one on rocks and minerals, the other on botany. I still have them— or what’s left of them. Mom also gave me her college English textbooks, and it was from a tattered copy of A Complete Course in Freshman English that I first read John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. Later, I read his earlier poems as well as his sermons. Such wit, such arrogance, such humility . . . such paradox. I still love the Metaphysicals, especially Donne.
Four: A Library of My Own
Now that I am an adult, I have more books than bookcases. It’s been a problem for some time. Once when I moved into a house across from a public library, my grandmother said, “Good, now you won’t have to buy so many books.” I had to laugh. She just didn’t understand my desire to have all those words for my very own.
Five: High School
In high school I began buying my own books: C.S. Lewis, Steinbeck, Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, Vonnegut, and others. Vonnegut stands out as one of the few writers I read who was still alive.
I loved Faulkner but had difficulty finishing his novels. There was something about their cadence . . . I had to stop reading and start writing myself. As always I loved Dickens, and I’d weep at the conclusion of A Tale of Two Cities, so overwhelmed by Cardin’s selflessness that I could hardly see the words through my tears. I loved Dostoyevsky perhaps the most, though, and as a teen The Idiot was my favorite book. I fell in love with the tragic-comic character of Prince Myshkin, that Christ-like figure who was both betrayed by his friends and triumphant over them.
I don’t think I have an affinity for these tales now as I did then. It is a dangerous thing, I think, to love an underdog too much.
Will you share a reading memory in the comment section below?
Six: Private Lives
The older I get, the more I enjoy nonfiction, particularly autobiography. As an undergraduate, I was profoundly touched by the diaries of Lowell factory girls, the oral histories of former slaves and the journal of a pioneer woman who saved her daily thoughts, like a message in a bottle, because she did not wish to be forgotten. As a graduate student, I loved Memoirs of a Medieval Woman and a French journeyman’s Journal of My Life.
One of the best autobiographies I ever read, though, was in high school, and it was Lauren Bacall’s first book. In it, she gives a great piece of advice, one I wish I’d followed better as an adult: “Make sure the fucking you get is worth the fucking you get.”
I’m thinking of needlepointing that onto a pillow top.
Seven: Reading Like Jane Austen
Comedian Steven Wright tells a joke that goes something like this: “I went to a place to eat. It said 'breakfast at any time.' So I ordered French Toast during the Renaissance."
Similarly, I once read Jane Austen in the early 19th century—or a close approximation of it. The experience wasn’t so much funny as intense.
It was the summer my niece Cate was born. My sister and her husband came straight from the maternity ward to my parents’ basement, where they lived for the first two weeks of Cate’s life.
Although I love my niece and spent a good deal of time with her as she grew up, at 15 I was uninterested in infants and moved out—into a cabin half a mile away.
I took Jane Austen with me, the complete novels in two paperback volumes.
I spent most of my time cross-legged in front of the electric fan, reading one Jane Austen novel after another.
By this time my parents had built an A-frame on the farm, and we were living there full time. The cabin, formerly a weekend retreat, was seldom used. Nevertheless, it was neat and clean and furnished.
It was also small— just one rectangular room unevenly divided by a double-sided fireplace. On one side of the fireplace was a narrow kitchen, on the other a great room with two quilt-covered beds against the far wall.
There was electricity but no running water, just a well down the dirt road. A blue and white chamber pot was under the bed, an outhouse in the pasture over the hill.
The cabin roof was tin and made whimsical, otherworldly music when it rained. That particular July, it rained a lot.
I spent most of my time indoors, cross-legged in front of the electric fan, reading one Jane Austen novel after another.
Like her heroines, I took sponge baths, pouring water from a china ewer into a basin on the washstand by the bed. When I wanted to wash my hair, I filled a washtub with water heated on the stove and had a sit bath.
My last week there, a violent storm knocked out the electricity, and I lived an even more 19th century life, reading (and sweating) by candlelight as the wind howled through the trees and rain pounded fantastical tempos on the roof.
By the time I finished Persuasion, both volumes were a shambles, the spines broken, the slick covers curled at the corners and cracked.
Reluctantly, I moved back home into the 20th century.
Eight: Don’t Ask Me
I once heard an opera singer explain to an interviewer that she didn’t sing around the house. “You mean you don’t even sing in the shower?” he asked. “No,” she replied. “You see, to me singing is work.”
Being an English teacher can make it hard to love books. I fall in love with a text then spend six weeks dissecting it with teenagers in a Frankenstein laboratory of vocabulary lists, concept maps and discussion groups. Sometimes, knee-deep in the carnage of knowledge, covered in the gore of plot outlines and literary elements, I feel like that opera singer. Reading is work. “Join a book group? You’ve got to be kidding. That’s what I do for a living!”
Being an English teacher can make it hard to love books.
To put it another way, too often teaching English is like being a comedian who has to explain every joke. After a while, nothing seems very funny. After a while, it’s hard to relax and just enjoy the written word. That’s why I think English teachers should never explain much of anything about a book to students. I try not to. Instead, I try to arrange things so they come to their own conclusions without any Great Discourse on Writing from me. And if I really, absolutely, gotta, have to, must say something, it’s usually along these lines: “Don’t ask me. What do you think?”
Well, what do you think?
*All sections but "Reading Like Jane Austen" were written in 2005 as part of the course work for a graduate class in teaching reading.
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© 2017 Jill Spencer