Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A Desultory Conversation About Reading

It’s pretty cool to have lived so long that the world of one’s youth has become the subject of (Ancient) History books. I feel a tinge of pride that I’ve retained a misty visual of that first American spaceship blasting off from Cape Canaveral. I get a thrill every time I watch Mad Men, frequently yelling things like, “My father had that ashtray in his waiting room!” or “My mother had that apron! (frying pan, toaster, necklace, purse)” or “I wore Sally’s dress in 3rd grade!” Or “We had those curtains! The exact same ones!” The modern conveniences of my childhood have become the archaeological artifacts of today, providing a glimpse into the kitschy Moderne World of the early ‘60’s. (Side note to coddled offspring: No, our schoolrooms were not air conditioned way back then. Think about Georgia in early September. You had to unglue your legs from your seat before you could walk up to the board to try to figure out the terrifying math problem.)

Anyway, anyway. On Sunday, I had an opportunity to step back in time for a second. My childhood church had a big open house to celebrate a wonderful new addition. A while ago, the church had purchased the building next to it, a historic 19th century structure. The addition is situated between the two, uniting them into one sprawling entity. We went on a tour, which was like following a labyrinth. I had flashbacks of myself (age 6? 7?) hiding in the dim regions that formed a kind of tunnel underneath the front steps of the church. Sneaking over an old spiked wrought iron fence to climb on the gigantic church bell that was too big for a steeple.

My husband and I tried to remember how things had been when our children were growing up there. Turning a corner, we went up an unremembered old stairway and found ourselves in the front hall of the house (formerly) next door. At one point, we'd had many adventures co-teaching the High School Sunday School class in that building. But a glimpse of the massive old carved handrail brought back an even earlier memory.

When I was a small girl, the house had been transformed into the town library. Even fifty years ago, it had acquired an olfactory patina of age. Old books crammed into old bookcases in old rooms. Sunday, even though the paint was still fresh in the beautifully redecorated house, the delicious musty scent of all those venerable volumes came back to me.

One of the most exciting aspects of the summers of my youth (and there were many) was getting to go to the Athens Regional Library. I would fly up those steep dark steps to the second floor, anxious to return a foot-deep stack of books and amass another. I have no idea how a scrawny thing like me managed to do that. Adrenalin, I guess. We got some kind of reward for each book we read. Was it little apples? We pinned them onto a board, I think. (Help me out, old Athens natives.) All I know is that, come September, I wanted to win the reward for having read the most books.

Of course, I realize now that the reading was its own reward. I am so grateful to have been given the privilege of a love of reading from a very early age. (I believe it is why I was able to fake my way through Emory University with all the smart kids.) I tried to teach myself to read before kindergarten, but, for some reason, it was frowned upon back then. (“Don’t want anyone getting ahead of the class”? “It’ll make them weird”?) Whatever. By third grade, I’d read Little Women seven times. I could quote the whole first chapter. (Much less, act it out with my BF. I always wanted to be Jo.)

Growing up, I read the way an alcoholic drinks. In secret, under the covers with a flashlight. In the bathtub. In my tiny closet. In a tree house I constructed out of cardboard boxes. In a moving car until I threw up.

I didn’t realize that this was strange until I had daughters of my own. In spite of the fact that I read to them in utero and for as long as they’d sit still afterwards, none of them developed the addiction. I found…gasp of horror… stacks of Cliff Notes hidden in their closets. I have one child who may have graduated from High School with the distinction of never having actually finished a single book. May have. Can’t prove it beyond a shadow.

In Junior High (the “Middle School” of my generation), I had read practically everything worth reading in the fluorescent-lit room that served as library. Bored and hunting around for something new, I spotted a pretty woman in 19th century attire gracing a book cover. Thinking it might be some juicy historical fiction, I checked it out. It was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

I was 12 or 13. It changed my life. It made me question the meaning of life.

Forty+ years later, it remains my favorite of all time.

One reason I treasure the privilege of reading so much now is because I was deprived of it for more than two years. (Complications from herniated disks in my neck.) We tried every device and contraption that’s been invented, including one with mirrors that enabled the reader to lie flat. Nothing worked. Finally, I gave up. A sweet friend brought me the New Testament on tape, and I lay flat in bed and listened to that. For weeks and weeks. (A story for another day…)

I was in the final stages of emerging from that dark and painful period when Katherine’s AVM erupted, radically changing everything in our lives. Reading became pretty much impossible for other reasons then. (With the significant exception of the most important Book of all. I hungrily wolfed down those words… chewed on them, sometimes swallowed them whole. It was how I lived…sustenance.)


Thank you for allowing me this long self-indulgence, those of you who’ve read this far without coming to a point. (Which actually is a point: not everything has one.) Sometimes desultory conversation is a nice thing. It also reminds me of my childhood, when people actually had time to sit around and chat about nothing in particular. Chew the fat, as we used to say in the South. Just for the pleasure of each other’s company.

But if this must have a point, I guess it’s this:

Walking up that century and a half old staircase took me back to the place of awe I felt as a child for the gift of the written word. That awe is becoming increasingly extinct. The radical advance of instant-gratification technology over the past 50 years has blunted our appreciation and shortened our attention spans. Life is faster and busier now. It’s hard to sustain a prolonged interest in anything.

 A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed hadn't read a book in the previous year. According to another study, 42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college. That stuns me.

Writes journalist Justyn Dillingham, “Reading, as the great critic Harold Bloom has said, requires us to "look inward," and our world relentlessly discourages us from looking inward. The franticness of our lives, the blaring exhortations of advertisements, the constant pressures of the social world - all are engaged in a loud, unthinking conspiracy, of sorts, to keep us from sinking into introversion and self-examination. Obviously, an America whose citizens all read for pleasure would not be a perfect America. But it would be a better country than the one we live in now, simply because the values instilled by reading - imagination, skepticism, the capacity for thought - are also the values of citizenship.”

I am so very grateful to be able to return, at last, to one of my first loves. It has enriched my life beyond measure.


My trip up the stairs of Memory Lane has inspired me to turn in a Summer Reading List to you. May I have some apples, please?

So here it is… The Great, The Good, and The Everything Else:

Pride and Prejudice*, Jane Austen
Enchanted April*, Elizabeth Von Armin
Oblomov*, Ivan Goncharov
Ethan Frome*, Edith Wharton
A River Runs Through It*, Norman Maclean
Sonya, the Life of Countess Tolstoy*, Anne Edwards (after watching “The Last Station” with Helen Mirren)
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller
Mennonite In a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen
Winter Garden, Kristin Hannah
Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Alison Weir
Life After Yes, Aidan Donnelly Rowley
Imperfect Birds, Anne Lamott
French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Guiliano
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Lit, Mary Karr

(* Re-reads)

If you’d like a recommendation for one, I’d pick The Prodigal God. Deep, deep liberating stuff, but you can read it in a day.  If you’d like two, I’d go with Lit, a raw, real story of addiction and redemption. Lushly written… no pun intended. I’ve just started her prequel, The Liar’s Club. I’ll let you know.  Mennonite had parts that made me embarrass myself laughing out loud. The Help was accurate and moving. Enchanted April is charming and beautiful, with a lovely message equally as pertinent today as it was when it was written.    

A note about the Classics listed…yet another benefit of the Expensive Gadget! Most of you probably already know this, but thanks to the Gutenberg Project, you can download over 23,000 Great Books for free. Almost anything worth reading, as long as it was originally published before 1923. You can even get them on your Iphone! I re-read Pride and Prejudice while going through the car wash, waiting in a doctor’s office… even while stopped in LA traffic. (Probably illegal, so I don’t recommend it.) But this is another way that I can make the technology a blessing instead of a curse. Right now, I’ve got Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Dostoyevsky, and the Bible… all on my phone! (IPad’s definitely better for aging eyes, though. I take it to the gym and balance it on the elliptical. Makes it somewhat more bearable.)

Are there any other bookworms out there? Anyone else want to share a Summer Reading List? Or recommend something wonderful? Reminisce about the Good Old Days? I love hearing from you.

And I do want to thank you for taking the time to read my words. Some of these posts are, notoriously, as long as a book. So you must like to read! (Or you’re very patient and loving.)

(p.s. I know I need to update the Books page. Soon?)

The hallowed library of my youth.


Kilgore Kids said...

Wow, my list is short in comparison.

Total Money Makeover - Dave Ramsey
Going Home - Cheri Pope
Radical - David Platt

Can't wait to try some of your suggestions.

Laurel said...

Oh, yeah. You are speaking my language. The library smell engenders that numinous feeling of "the next great discovery is right around the corner from the shelf that holds my best friends." That smell will always take me back to summer vacation. The dearth of it is the only thing I don't like about my eReader.

I still read like an alcoholic drinks. To my detriment. To the exclusion of other things I should be doing. And I concluded pretty quickly that my Kindle paid for itself by the time I downloaded all the Austen, Dickens, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Twain, etc.

I'm trying to pass it along to my moppets. The six year old is on the right track but I haven't found his magic book yet. Or The Magician's Book, as it were. The one that sets your imagination on fire and you can't put down. The one you get in trouble for reading at school. He's started Accelerated Reader this year and I hate it because it turns reading into a score-based school activity instead of an omigosh this is better than tv one.

I feel like now that everyone has decided reading is so good for us we push it on our kids like vegetables. Sucks the fun right out of it and the competition is stiff...24 hour cartoon networks, Wii, computers, entertainment on speed.

The stories are still there, though, waiting to suck us into someone else's mind for a little while. Dragons and knights and greco-roman gods, kids who are brave and true, justice and happy endings and joyous things.

Rebecca said...

How I loved that library. I remember those summer reading programs. I remember one summer, it must have been the last hurrah b/c the head librarian pleaded with my mother, "Katherine, if you'll just bring back the books Rebecca (yes, that's what my parents called me, not Becky) checked out we won't charge the fine!" The librarian was the one with the beautiful grey hair in a Gibson girl sort of bun. I checked out stacks, too, but I was a bit chunkier than Kim, so had no trouble hoofing it up those stairs. Later on, in high school I remember sitting around that big table researching our junior English term papers (only index cards, please!) Good times.

Anonymous said...

Oh my... where do I begin?? I read ALL THE TIME. There are lots of other things I could do (like *ahem* excersize) but I just love to read.

My list as of today:

Wuthering Heights-Emily Bronte
Madame Bovary-Gustave Flaubert
Jane Eyre-Charlotte Bronte
The Historian- Elizabeth Kostova
Harry Potter (all of 'em)
Book of Lamentations
Knowing God-JI Packer
Lenins Tomb-David Remnick
Blood River-Tim Butcher
Heart of Darkness-Joseph Conrad
Devil in the White City-Erik Larson
Africa, Asian & Middle Eastern History
Gone With the Wind-Margaret Mitchell
Life of Pi-Yann Martel

Hmmm noticing a trend here? Mostly dark, mostly depressing. That fits my style :) I know I am leaving a ton off. I always have a book going (sometimes more than one). I love libraries and I love bookstores. In fact, my idea of Heaven most days is a rainy day, squishy bed, hot tea, crackers, and lots of books (and travel magazines)!

Thanks for making my day with this post!


Katherine said...

Oh there are so many. Here are my Tops!!

Anne of Green Gables- LM Montgomery*
Jane Eyre- Charlotte Bronte
Wuthering Heights- Charlotte Bronte
Harry Potter (all) - JK Rowling
The Great Gatsby- Fitzgerald
Jewels - Danielle Steele**
The Reason for God- Timothy Keller
The Adv of Huckleberry Finn- Twain
Little Women- Louisa May Alcott

*My all-time favorite!!
**I know you are thinking,
'Danielle Steele? Really?' Yes, really. This one is so good.

Can't wait to try your suggestions!!

Katherine Ball

(I went to Samford with your Katherine and we also have the DeSoto connection. Although, I was a first-termer and she was second! Go Chickasaws! :) )

Katherine said...

Just re-read my comment. Yes, I realize WH was written by Emily Bronte and not Charlotte! Apologies for my momentary lapse. :)

Anonymous said...

my "about me" on my facebook page says: "books are my drug. i just want more time to read"
i read several books on my iphone during the night when i fed the newborn twins. it was the ONLY way to stay awake and see what i was doing too!
"Lit" is a wonderful book and what a special surprise that she finds Christ at the end!
Now we know why you are such a good writer -- you are a good reader.
try Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom" when you get a chance. love, michelle

Anonymous said...

Oh, reading. How I love thee so!!! I remember going to the library as a kid and just picking up anything that looked interesting and checking out stacks of books at a time--and the librarian making a face (a nice shocked face), but letting me take them all anyway!

I devoured books as a child--I am pretty sure that the need to read is genetic. My father likes to read, as does my sister, although my brother has no interest (just like my mom). I devour books now, although I don't have as much time for it as I once did--a lot of time is taken up by the internet lately, which is a bad habit that I am attempting to break. However, I did read The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire--I never would have picked them up if it wasn't for morbid curiosity as to why they were so popular, but man, what a great story--Lisbeth Salander is one of the best characters that has come along in a good bit (although the stories are quite violent). I'm starting the third book of that, but some books that I can recommend reading if you haven't are:

The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver
The Secret Life of Bees Sue Monk Kidd
Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion
A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving

All of these have been read and reread by me--they are all kinda sad too, but man, oh man (or Mrs. Kim, as it were), they are engrossing. And they make you feel, which as an actress, I'm intensely interested in. Can't wait to pick up some of your recommendations!!


Anonymous said...

I agree with Michelle --you are a great writer because you are a reader. Growing up, I was the youngest of seven kids in Yankton , SD. My dad owned a TV business but we weren't allowed to have a TV in our home! How grateful I am now for that privilege.

While my friends went to movies or watched cartoons I visited our little local library and carried home stacks of books, devouring them day after day. I never once told my mother that I was bored because I always knew I had a "friend" to keep me company.

I love your list, Kim, and have noted a few that I haven't read yet. I'm in the middle of The Help and actually love reading it aloud! Another one I couldn't put down was A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

Keep reading and writing - we love to devour your posts too!

Susan H

Anonymous said...

A few books I have read recently that I enjoyed:

Wild Swans: Apparently this novel made a sensation in the 90s, but I just discovered it this year.

Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett: A story of life. Bennett tells the story of two sisters with an often satirical, and yet, touching and compassionate view of human life. We watch his main characters travel from youth, to old age, and finally death. Some of the lines are poignant. For example, the following passage touched me deeply. After the death of the main character he writes:
"Her friends genuinely regretted her, and forgot the tediousness of her sciatica. They tried, in their sympathetic grief, to picture to themselves all that she had been through in her life. Possibly they imagined that they succeeded in this imaginative attempt. But they did not succeed. No one but Constance could realize all that Constance had been through, and all that life had meant to her."

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Suzanna Clarke: Just a really fun story.

Middlemarch by George Eliot: A classic. If you haven’t read it yet, do. George Eliot has such a keen perception of human nature. And if you like Eliot, then read Adam Bede. It is also a wonderful work.

Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte: Anne doesn’t get the attention her more well-known sisters get, and I don’t understand it. Although I love Charlotte’s works, and to a lesser degree Wuthering Heights, this novel touched me deeply. While Charlotte and Emily’s works all have strong female characters, this book is much more up-front about its feminist viewpoint. The novel's religious discussions are also very interesting.

If you liked Ethan Frome, make sure to pick up Edith Wharton’s other novels. She is one of my favorite authors, so I would recommend anything she wrote. House of Mirth is my favorite. Also particularly enjoyed Custom of the Country and The Age of Innocence.

Karen said...

Kim, I was just like you as a kid. My Dad was a pastor and we moved often. In the library I wasn't the 'new kid'. I am so thankful to have this love of books. Just purchased a iPad and I have to admit that the old eyes are loving the big type :). The quote about reading causing us to look inward, is so true. T.V. and the media have a herd like mentality which causes people to lose their individuality hoping to be accepted....Back to reading my book :). Karen

Anonymous said...

Kim. I'm sure you know this, but there is a third book, CHERRY, in this series. LIARS CLUB is about her early years, CHERRY covers the teenage years and LIT is about her as an adult. I loved her honesty in telling her story.

Jane said...

Hi Kim,

Anna Karenina is also my favorite book! This summer I am reading Provinces of Night by William Gay, Star Island by Carl Hiaasen, and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I treasure my reading time on my screen porch. Usually only on Sunday afternoons.

Jane Olson