Auld Lang Syne

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Books Have Changed Me

I read. No, I mean I REALLY read. I learned to read at age three by sitting on my father's lap while he read "the funny papers" to me. Prince Valiant and Archie were my favorites (I now get Ballard Street daily via computer). But as satisfying as it was to read the funnies on my own, it was actual books that made a difference for me. I got my own library card when I was in grammar school and was able to walk to the library on my own to check out books by the time I was in 4th grade. I took out the maximum number of books each time (3) and never paid a fine for an overdue book except for once when I kept Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl a week longer at 10 cents a day fine because I couldn't bear to part with it (I just got a copy recently as my copy had been loaned out never to return. (I'm not mad at that person, I understand really I do).

Once I had a library card, I was on my way to a life of reading (and then writing) that has held me up in times of great travail and underscored the times of great happiness. Reading is one very large brick in the foundation of who I am. I have hundreds of books and I generally do not read them only once (so they stay). I admit to judging people a little when I go to a house and see or don't see books. (sorry, it just crosses my mind that they are either happy readers or somehow disadvantaged in that area... I don't stop LIKING a person for lack of books, just feel sorry for them a little).

Now I have an e-reader. I have devised a way of combining technology with low-tech that works for me. Most fiction is purchased on my Kindle for Mac (iPad). It simply saves shelf space and is portable in ways the actual books are not. I travel a fair amount and lugging a ton of books around can be daunting to say the least. But my poetry books have to live in my house with me. I have some poetry on my iPad (usually duplicates or really ancient works) so I am never far from my poetry. But generally fiction = iPad and poetry = bookshelves. Nonfiction can go either way.

Books have changed me from a shy girl to a confident woman. Left on my own, I might never have left Maine. I had a comfortable life here when I was growing up, enjoyed my family and my surroundings, had some excellent close friends. But reading made me want to see more, do more. I wanted to be as smart as the people I found in faraway places, I wanted to have adventures and see the world outside of my small Leave-It-To-Beaver life.

When I was in high school I read foreign books, including Camus' L'Etranger (The Stranger) IN FRENCH, along with loads of historical fiction about the British monarchy. In earlier years I read Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl and Heidi and Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates. All of these books made me want to travel beyond my hometown and my state.

I should say here that not only did I read, but I was read to ALOUD by wonderful teachers from 3rd grade through high school. My fondest memories are of Mrs. Emery, Mr. Libby, Mr. Harrison, and Mrs. Parsons reading to our class. There was another teacher whose name I cannot quite recall but whose beautiful cashmere skirt and sweater sets I will never forget along with her 4" heels and her beautiful diamond ring. Her voice was like liquid chocolate. I listened raptly and got lost in the world of The Raven by Poe as she was reading it to us, perched on the edge of her desk. Mr. Libby was my first man teacher and he read Little Britches (Ralph Moody) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to us. He had a low, rumbling voice and a chuckle that was infectious when he'd get to something funny. By the way, it never occurred to me that there was "boy literature" and "girl literature," just wonderful stories. Mrs Parsons read to us from a serialized story by Daphne Du Maurier, The Glass Blowers. We'd get it as the story came out week by week in either Red Book or Ladies Home Journal until the whole thing was finished. We looked forward to each installment. She also read aloud from Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice) and read poetry to us. Mr Harrison read to us from our country's documents and from people like Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln. Mrs. Emery read to us from Little Women and House of the Seven Gables.

See how darned lucky I was? What a childhood/girlhood I had in books. Of course I was reading on my own too, outside of school. In grammar school I read the Judy Bolton mysteries. I was never a Nancy Drew girl for some reason, maybe because everyone else was reading her. I recently bid on and won a 10 book set of Judy Boltons and am re-reading them. They are as good as I remember.

By the time I had children of my own, reading had become a habit. I don't ever remember thinking that books were a waste of time or money. My first husband was VERY critical of my having books in the house, thought they were wasteful purchases. Why not just get books from the library? We fought about this. We fought bitterly about this. When we met in college, he bragged about his "reading skills," saying he only read the first line of Moby Dick ("Call me Ishmael") and yet understood the whole novel. Bah! I thought that was awfully arrogant (should have been a clue!). I later discovered he faked a lot of things and bragged about doing so. Aaaargh!

But not for me. I savored every page, every dialogue, every line of every poem. It was like breath for me. In 1968, I was living in Burlington, Vermont (college interuptus) and found the book that would propel me into a lifetime of writing poetry. McAuliffe's on Church Street (now gone, sadly) was a magical place of fine paper and writing instruments and books (upstairs). I was browsing by my usual method of running my eyes and my fingers over the spines of books. A little yellow binding caught my eye and there it was: The Outermost House by Henry Beston. The cover was pretty, a drawing of a dunes cabin, a window out onto a beach. I forked over the $1.45 and headed home to my apartment to read. OH MY! As I read though the whole night, I became intrigued with the way Beston wove a true story with poetical language and Latin words and details of his life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. He had built his dune cabin himself (the fo'castle) and lived an entire year there through every kind of weather, writing and observing nature and finding out about his own nature as a human being. I cannot say for sure how many copies of this book I have bought and given away over the years. Dozens. I scour used bookstores for them. I have paid as much as $10 for a copy. Mostly they are in the $3 range. No matter. And I have my original copy which has gone everywhere with me since 1968. I describe this book as my all-time favorite. No kidding, it changed me from a wanna-be writer into a writer. I wanted to SAY things and say them well and beautifully. I wanted my words to matter to other people. I noticed how he used multiple approaches to his storytelling, and how his words stirred my heart — sappy sentiment, but true. It was devastating to me to find out that his shack washed away in a big storm decades ago. I wanted to go there, sit on the dunes nearby, and write something wonderful. I wanted to breathe in the same air he breathed, to be there at night and see the swinging flash of the Naussett Light. Sigh. But part of the beauty of writing and reading is that one can do those things anyway, by reading and re-reading. By being open to allow the words to enter.

Happily my reading habit has infused my family as well. My eldest daughter read Beowulf aloud to her son starting at age 6 or so. He later read Grendel on his own. My granddaughter Alyssa has a book in hand most of the time. (her dad once "laid down the law" that there was to be no "nose in a book at the dinner table" and she rebelled. I'm with her on this one of course). My grandson Justin was read to by me at age two, the same book over and over (God Made the Puppies) until he could recite it with sound effects as I read it to him. I recently found a copy of that book and sent it to him (he is 21) and he was THRILLED, noticing a missing page and reciting it to me over the phone! My grandson Christopher loved when I'd read Muskrat Will Be Swimming as he'd take his morning bath before going off to kindergarten. He has his own library card here which he uses when he visits us from college. My daughter Erin and her husband read to their two kids and there were always stacks of library books by the comfy chair for them to enjoy. Many trips to the library for those kids. We send books to people in our family when we find things that might be of interest. We just sent daughter Gina two of Kate Braestrup's books for example, and I am sending grandson Alex a book on clouds.  My legacy: a life of books. I couldn't be happier than to leave this to my family.

So, get yourself a copy of the book you loved the most when you were younger. Find copies of your kids' old favs, get them, send them. Discover what huge adventures you can still have by reading and reading and reading. Today I will return to The Outermost House. It's a great place to be.

1 comment:

  1. You are an amazing reader indeed and skew the average to a higher ground.