One Reader’s Beginnings

I’ve been a reader for as long as I can remember.  I mean that literally.  I cannot recall a time when books were not a huge part of my life.  On the first day of kindergarten, I remember sitting at my table and wondering when we were going to learn to read.  Now, I already knew how to read – my mom taught me when I was in preschool – so I’m not sure what I expected.  To be inducted into some sort of secret society, perhaps.  A secret society of readers.  Or maybe some kind of turning point where I officially became a book person.  Which I already was, and had been practically since birth.

There was never a time in my reading life where I had to learn to love reading and books.  That came naturally to me.  Turning pages, scanning printed words, imprinting stories upon my memory and imagination – those things took no effort.  So most of my reading life has been spent honing my tastes… figuring out what I like, and what I don’t like… in short, forming an identity as a reader.  For me, just identifying as a reader doesn’t go quite far enough.  Of course I’m a reader.  The question is, what kind of reader?  That is something I’ve been figuring out all my life.

In elementary school and middle school, I read wide varieties of “young adult” fiction, although I’m not sure that’s what anyone called it.  I read good stuff and junky stuff indiscriminately.  I was just as likely to be glued to a book from the Sweet Valley series, or especially The Baby-Sitters Club, as I was to a copy of Anne of Green Gables or From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I think the turning point for me, the point at which I started to think about content and get picky, came the summer after eighth grade.  I don’t remember now what I did (probably mouth off), but my parents were punishing me for something.  I was a weird kid, and normal punishments like taking away television or phone privileges had next to no effect on me – I barely watched television anyway and I’ve never been a phone person.  So I suppose my parents had to get pretty creative when it came to discipline, and the punishment they dreamed up on this particular occasion was this: no books, except for “classics.”  Functionally, that meant no Baby-Sitters Club.  Oh, the humanity.

It was a week of enforced good taste.  Not reading was obviously not an option.  So I picked up a book that no one could argue with or take away: To Kill a Mockingbird.  I still remember sitting on the couch with my book and my parents occasionally coming into the room to ask me, accusingly, what I was reading.  My response, emphatic and defensive, was always: “To Kill a Mockingbird!  It’s a CLASSIC!”  Take that, parents.  As it turned out, when the summer ended and I started ninth grade Honors English, I was glad to have already read To Kill a Mockingbird.  By then, it had become one of my favorite books – I’d already read it twice by the time it was assigned in the spring semester – and I was able to delve more deeply into the characters and the story.  For a class project, I wrote a journal from the perspective of Atticus Finch and my very demanding, altogether wonderful teacher was thrilled with it.  She said I became Atticus.  Looking back, I owe quite the debt of gratitude to To Kill a Mockingbird.  Not only was it the catalyst for a change in my reading life, but Atticus Finch is one of the reasons I became a lawyer.

Ninth grade changed my reading life beyond To Kill a Mockingbird.  I read Jane Austen for the first time – Sense and Sensibility was my introduction into Regency England; I identified with serious, pragmatic Elinor and rolled my eyes at dreamy Marianne.  My English teacher – the same one who assigned To Kill a Mockingbird – encouraged me to read Eudora Welty.  I read my first Shakespeare play.  By the end of the year, I was a full-on book snob.  By the end of high school, all of my Baby-Sitters Club books were in the basement, replaced on my shelves by meticulously organized, scrupulously chosen classics.  For years, my criteria for any book I read was that I had to be proud to tell my ninth grade English teacher that I was reading it.  If it wasn’t a book I would want to show to her, I wouldn’t touch it.  In 1997, I set a goal to read 50 books, all books that I hadn’t read before, that were not assigned for school, and that I would be proud to show that particular teacher.  I met that goal, but I was reading up until about 9:00 p.m. on December 31st to make it – and book 50 was actually an epic poem, which I wasn’t sure should really count, but desperate times and all that.  In 2007 I set the same goal, only this time I had to read 100 books, all books I hadn’t read before.  But the other criteria was the same – I had to be proud of each and every book if I happened to see my English teacher.

I never stopped “reading for fun,” even when life got very busy.  My college major, Industrial and Labor Relations, was notoriously heavy on reading assignments.  It was a campus joke to refer to ILR as “I Love Reading” – in fact, I remember my grandparents dropping me off for accepted students’ weekend in March of my senior year in high school.  We bumped into some upperclassmen, who asked what school I would be in.  I told them ILR and they laughed, “Oh, I Love Reading!”  My grandparents – coming to my defense – said seriously, “She really does love reading.”  The campus joke was right on; ILR kept me busy with reading assignments.  I probably had quadruple the books on my windowsill – maybe even more – in comparison to my roommate, a nutrition major.  Still, I still found time to squeeze non-labor books in (just not too many; I did have a G.P.A. to think about in light of my looming law school applications).  If I ever fell off the book bandwagon, it was in law school, especially second and third year when every moment of every day was accounted for.  But I always caught up during the summers.  And then came my first job – a government job, with enforced maximum hours and a handful of new friends who happened to be as book-obsessed as I was.  My reading life exploded into activity (hence the 100-books-in-2007 challenge).  And I haven’t slowed down since.  Sometimes I’m asked how I can read and write all day – which, indeed, I do: cases and contracts and briefs, oh my! – and then go home to curl up with a book all evening.  I can’t really explain it, except to say that I have yet to bump up against my limit when it comes to words I can stand to read or pages I can stand to turn.  And legal writing is very different from the fiction I favor in my off hours.  I don’t feel overloaded at all.

I’ve been a reader for more than two decades now.  (I don’t know how long, precisely, because as I said I don’t remember not being able to read.)  In that time, I’ve read good books and bad books, and a very few books that I had to stop midway through because they were just awful.  I’ve discovered what I don’t like: science fiction, most fantasy (except for my beloved Harry Potter), most dystopia, and most “young adult” fiction.  And I’ve honed a description of what I do especially like: classics (especially English literature), new literary fiction, well-researched historical fiction with strong characters, travel memoirs, and British mysteries.  More than just knowing my likes and dislikes – which was a long process – I feel that I have finally assembled my identity as a reader: I am mainly a fiction reader with a preference for both historical classics and new literary fiction with well-drawn characters, but I will read non-fiction books that evoke a sense of place or personality.  I favor simple but evocative language and tight plots.  I’ll give most books a chance, especially in my preferred genres, but in order to earn a spot on my permanent shelf a book has to engage me from the beginning, give me relatable characters and a well-drawn plot, and reward me with a satisfying ending.  My preferences may change over time – in fact, I’m sure they will – but I’m sure I’ll always have strong opinions about books.

What about you – what kind of reader are you?

7 thoughts on “One Reader’s Beginnings

  1. I LOVE that Atticus Finch, in a way, inspired you to become a lawyer.
    My favorite things to read are fiction and historical fiction, mostly stories written by and about women and my favorite is African-American women’s fiction. My favorite author is Octavia Butler, a black science fiction writer who is incredible. I’m not much of a fan for sci-fi but her works are amazing, I would highly recommend you pick up one of her books or short stories to check it out. My first taste of her writing was “Kindred” which is less sci-fi-ish.
    Some of my all-time favorite books are: Kindred, A Wrinkle in Time, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Roots, Ahab’s Wife, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Time Traveler’s Wife.
    A book that I picked up recently and fell in love with is “Stones from the River” by Ursula Hegi which I highly recommend as well! 🙂
    I actually haven’t read much of the classic English literature but have been meaning to read Jane Austen for the past few months (I’ve never read any of her works, I know, the shame!) and after reading your post I think I’m *finally* going to pick one up.
    Are you on goodreads.com?
    -Lisa

    • Thanks for the recommendations! I will definitely check out Octavia Butler. I also love Maya Angelou and Madeleine L’Engle (I met her once at a reading/signing, and she stuck around for half an hour after the signing to talk with me about being a writer after everyone else had left – I was 12 – I’ll never forget that!). If you’re planning to read Jane Austen for the first time, I would suggest Pride and Prejudice – although I read Sense and Sensibility first I’d probably go a different route for my first one if I had it to do over again. They’re all wonderful though! (My poor hubby is stuck accompanying me to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath when we go to England this fall – he owes me, though, since I trudged through the Renault dealership with him in Paris last year!) I am on Goodreads – my profile is here: http://www.goodreads.com/user/show/353795-jaclyn – if you want to be bookfriends! 😀

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