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
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.|