… and I’ve been playing a game of readaholic catch-up ever since.
My parents had the best of intentions when it came to books and reading.
My mother used to say: When you have a book, you have a friend. And she would tell us how she and her younger brother would sit side by side at the dining table, a book laid in front of them, the slow reader on the left, the fast reader on the right, the intervening pages held up vertically in the middle.
And from my father: Knowledge is heavy! This, jokingly, approvingly, as he hefted bags filled with library books into the trunk of the car.
Every other Saturday morning was the same: we’d pile into our VW Beetle and drive downtown. We’d park in the underground parkade and ascend to the library, a huge two-storey structure with the children’s library tucked in a corner of the basement. Because it was the 70s and this practice was de rigueur, my parents would say See you later! and wander off to do their own thing, my mother going to the paperback racks to select a dozen or more detective or romance novels, my father to the magazine section where he’d get his stack of back-issue Popular Mechanics or Popular Photography.
Most Saturday mornings, a gentle hum would greet me as I descended the stairs, and I’d have to skirt around the long vacuum hose that snaked a path behind the janitor as he cleaned the long, carpeted hallway that led to the children’s library. I’d pass through the check-out area where the librarian was busily and quietly working, and I’d enter the silent stacks.
And once there, I would wander … going from shelf to shelf … staring at the spines, overwhelmed by the sheer volume. Indecisive about what to choose, and too shy to ask for help, I’d — more often than not — choose the same books, over and over and over again.
There was Charlotte’s Web; The Wizard of Oz; Harriet the Spy; Katie John; What the Witch Left; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret; Otherwise Known As Sheila The Great; Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me; Freaky Friday.
I remember hearing at one point, about a girl who’d decided to read every single book in her library. She was going to do it alphabetically, methodically; what an incredibly noble and worthy goal, I thought.
Every summer, I’d look at the race track the librarian had set up for the summer reading program and marvel — be awed, in fact — by the sheer volume of books other children were reading. I wanted to catch up to them; I really did! Oh, to read that many books!
And yet, what would I do?
I’d invariably choose the same books, over and over and over again, I’d go home with my bag stuffed full, sit on my bed and … cross-stitch.
I suppose it’s no wonder I was not a well-read child. (But I was a heckuva grandma, according to my brother’s best friend … ).
It was Rita’s post on purging books that set me to pondering about all of this, specifically her statement:
When I needed help knowing what to do and how to be, I turned to fiction, memoir, and poetry, where I found solace, companionship, adventure, wonder, and answers to important questions.
This is, I think, the absolute ideal, the magic that flows through stories, the reason so many people LOVE books. And while Rita’s words fit me to a T now, I can’t help but wonder why I didn’t have that life-transforming relationship with books while growing up. While it’s clear that I suffered from an appalling lack of gumption as a child, it’s also fair to hazard — without laying blame — that I might have fared better if I had had some help in the book-choosing department. But those two factors aside, I think there was yet something else going on.
Ahem … there’s usually a point in my posts where I falter; either because I’m droning on (check!), or because I’m fast passing into the realm of Hmmm, should I really be admitting to XYZ? —
/ plunging onward regardless /
Here’s what I’m wondering …
What happens when lessons-on-how-to-live morph into something different? What happens when “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” crosses a line and becomes copying? Are any of you, dear readers, nodding your heads in understanding, completely *getting* where I’m going with this … or is what I’m about to say only relevant for those of us who should have been taken to a child psychologist instead of to a library?
It pains me to admit how long it took me to wake up to the stark reality embodied in the proverb, If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Here’s the thing: for me, despite the fact that books were held up as friends, reading all-too-often became a double-edged sword. What should have been wonderful escapism or edifying lessons-on-how-to-live became instead angst-filled comparisons.
The sad fact is that, Charlie and James aside, the characters in the contemporary books I was reading led lives which seemed so much more preferable than mine. Some of these girls lived in New York City (my gosh, New York!); most of them were spunky and lively; some of them had fascinating quirks, and all of them seemed to be stubbornly who-they-were, no apologies given. I didn’t want to just imitate these characters in order to learn what to do and how to be; there was a part of me that strongly imagined, fervently hoped, that if I tried hard enough — that if I went around the neighbourhood à la Harriet the Spy, armed with a notebook and a pencil — I could somehow magically become one of these characters; I’d somehow cease to be me, a scrawny and shy and scared girl with parents who fought all the time but who — unlike storybook parents — wouldn’t mercifully divorce. And it’s only now as I stop to consider it, completely recognizing the bizarre overarching wishful wistfulness of it all, that I see this must have been a pretty exhausting way to grow up. Maybe it’s no wonder I stitched my heart out: beauty came flowing out of my hands; it was the only time I felt good about being me.
And then, far too young, I ceased making the trek downstairs. I left the classics — the books from another time and place, the books with characters I would have had enormous difficulty becoming, but whose lessons might possibly have helped me, books like The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables and Little Women — unread on the shelf. By thirteen or fourteen I was upstairs, perusing the same racks my mother chose from, and escaping into detective novels and bodice ripper romances, feeding my mind on the continual, and rather addictive, metaphorical equivalent of candy and pop.
(I’m sure that last sentence is going to come off as elitist, and frankly, I’m not sure what to do about that. I swear I don’t look down on people whose entire literary diet is made up of V is for Vengeance and Fifty Shades of Grey*; I’m all for a little escapism … BUT … I think, and hope, it’s perfectly okay to admit to wanting to fill my mind with something a little more substantial).
It wasn’t until university that a lightbulb went off: if I was feeling as though I had somehow missed out on something important by not reading Margaret Atwood and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen, well then, that was something that was eminently fixable, wasn’t it? All I had to do was to put down the Harlequins and pick up something else.
Ah, if only ALL problems were so easily solved …
So when it came to our children, I made it my mission: I was going to raise well-read kids. My kids weren’t going to wander libraries and bookstores, overwhelmed and indecisive! It seems to me that much of what we do as parents can be labelled pendulum parenting — I was raised this way, so I will do the polar opposite for my own children. Sometimes this can be a disastrous approach: a child raised in a totalitarian home grows up and decides to raise his/her own children with absolutely no rules whatsoever. Fortunately, there are no ill-effects from reading, and when my husband sent me this link a year or so ago, in which the benefits of being a reader were extolled, I admit I allowed myself a rare, Well, I’ve done something right at least.
What I didn’t count on, though, when setting out to raise readers, was how profoundly that process would change me; that when our first-born — our daughter — would spend hours parked on my lap, getting up only to fetch another book from our quickly growing supply, that when I would plant a kiss on her temple with every page turned, that that would not only be good for her, but it would also be good for me. The rhythms, the rhymes, the characters, the plots, the illustrations — all of the subtle, and not-so-subtle, nuances that wash over you as you read a story — together with the speaking-aloud in various voices and the physical contact … for someone who grew up in a turbulent household, this new-found sitting-cuddled-up-together and reading, this immersion into peaceful whiling-away of hours at a time, was pure healing and bliss. (I know. It sounds over-stated. But there it is … ).
It’s also, perhaps — or at least, I’m hoping (really, really, really hoping) — an insulator against troubled times. Our 16 (almost 17) year-old son has been testing us enormously these past few months, pushing pushing pushing at boundaries, and I have to say it’s been somewhat helpful (not enormously, but still … ) that after the hyperbole of you never let me do anything, after I’ve just been accused of shouting (when all I’ve actually done is levelled a counter-argument in a completely measured and non-shouty way), after the door slams, I’m able to bring to mind and hold tight the memory of him as a four year-old: blonde-haired and blue-eyed, cuddled against me, thumb in his mouth, completely engrossed in the encyclopedic DK Dinosaurs And How They Lived.
(Sheesh, where’s the gratitude? It’s not easy for a non-palaeontologist to roll ornithischian and rhamphorhynchus off her tongue).
Oh wait … maybe, one day, I dunno — when he’s 30? — he’ll remember this brief conversation he reportedly had with a boy shortly after moving here:
How’d you get to be so smart? he was asked.
I dunno, he replied. I guess because my mom read to me and she feeds me good food.
* Just for the record, when Fifty Shades of Grey was being passed around the cul-de-sac, when it was being read by ALL the women (and at least one of the men), I took my turn with it too.