Unlike many people who love to read, I did not read much when I was a little kid. I loved TV (still do) and I loved playing with my sister (Hi Jamie!) and I loved going to the mall with my parents.
And then when I was about eleven I picked up one of my mom’s paperback romances and overnight (I stayed up all night reading it) I became a reader. I haven’t kept track of how many books I have read since that first one (which I still own) but it could be close to a thousand. If not more. At first it was paperback romances I got from my mom’s book closet. The bottom half of our linen closet was full of paperback mysteries and romances. The mysteries scared me so I read the romances and I am glad I did. Mysteries (at the time) usually began with a pretty girl who ended up dead by the end of the first chapter. Romances began with a pretty girl who was still alive at the end of the book. And she was living the life she had worked for, and often sacrificed a lot, to have. This seemed very different than what I was seeing in the culture at large. My feminism was born of late 1980’s era bodice rippers.
In high school I moved on to more serious books. I read some Hemingway, Fitzgerald, some blah, and a little bleck, and quite a bit of blurgh. Obviously, I did not enjoy reading most of them. I was not equipped to understand most of what I was reading. I only remember one part in a Hemingway novel, where he said that ambitious plans made at night rarely survive first light. And then I read Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. Good lord. I can still remember the beginning, with that endlessly ringing phone.
Anyway, that was the end of my self-guided tour through Literature. Sure, I read Jane Austen and E.M. Forster and some Brontes but those books had women in them who, for the most part, ended the book still alive. Johnny Got His Gun taught me that life is both short and precious so don’t go to war and, at least for me, don’t waste your time reading books that don’t mean anything to you.
Did paperback romances mean more to me than great literature? Absolutely. In paperback romances the women consistently got what they wanted. And in the best examples of the genre, other women actively helped them get what they wanted. If you want to read one of the great authors of the genre, check out anything written by Jennifer Crusie. Or the Wallflower Series by Lisa Kleypas.
As I moved into my early 20’s and definitely after Older Son was born, I once again began reading outside the romance genre. What helped me read across a wide variety of genres was access to a relatively well stocked public library. In every town and city I have ever lived in, one of the first things I do is go to the local library and get a card. Reading from the library made me into a genre omnivore. Because I didn’t have to pay for any of the books, I felt free to take home whatever caught my fancy.
I still read pretty much anything that looks interesting to me. Fiction (most all genres except horror and the darker, serial killer mysteries). Cookbooks (the best ones are a snapshot of the author’s life). Biography. Not a lot of autobiography since that seems to be the definition of an unreliable narrator. One of my favorite genres is science writing. The best science writing gives the best fiction a run for its money since the story of how humans have moved our kind forward often involves a huge amount of drama. And, unfortunately, violence. I don’t read as much history as I used to. It all tends to end badly. See: every book ever written about every war ever. I especially love poetry and books about poetry. I often don’t understand all of what I’m reading but it all sounds so beautiful, even when it’s about something awful. Local libraries are an excellent starting point for learning about poetry. The librarians in charge of buying for the libraries I have been lucky enough to go to have often put together a comprehensive collection of poetry. The better ones have often focused on the poetry of the cultures that live in the area. I read a lot of Korean poetry (in translation) when I lived in La Crescenta.
I have three books out from the library right now. Let me go get them. Roxane Gay’s ayiti. Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing edited by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Butterfly Gardening by The North American Butterfly Association Guide and Jane Hurwitz. The new book section has all the genres all nestled next to each other so you get a wide variety of topics in an easily searchable space.
Aside from sleeping, I have spent most of my life reading. Recently (this morning) I was lying on the couch with a book open on my chest staring up at the odd angles of how my stairs rise up to the second floor, and I thought, “Am I wasting my life?”
I have been thinking this thought a lot lately. Major life changes coming one close on the heels of another might lead a person to think this thought. I don’t know that it is a useful thought but it keeps popping into my mind at quiet moments. Especially after I have spent three hours lying on the couch reading.
There are few things I will spend three hours on. Sleeping. Walking around Disneyland with Six because he loves it. Driving a truck full of Older Son’s possessions up to his new home in Sacramento. Wandering around cities eating food and looking at stuff with Felicia. And, of course, reading.
I just realized that the only thing I am willing to do for long periods of time that do not involve people I love is reading. That is something to ponder.
I have a neighbor who goes out on his bicycle at 5Pm most every afternoon and usually doesn’t get back until after 9PM. Unless he is sitting at the fish taco place down the street, this guy is out riding his bike for about 4 hours.
I am stunned by this. I don’t like being on a bike for 4 minutes and, truth be told, I have a tendency to fall off after only 2. So I asked him why he rode his bike for so long. He said, “I don’t know. I just like to so I do.”
And I realized I felt the same about reading. And anything I love that much is not a waste of my life. Feeling intimidated by a person who can keep their balance for that long, I asked my neighbor if he ever reads for 4 hours at a time. He laughed at me. Turns out he’s a lawyer so the answer to that is yes. He’s smart and physically fit.