Wednesday, September 26, 2018

How I Read: A History

I've been a reader since before I learned how. When I was a little kid, I memorized my favorite books down to the page turns, so I had my grandmother convinced I could read when I was three.

I couldn't.

I just knew which words went with which pictures.

It's been a while since I memorized a book, but reading is still a huge part of my life. I thought it might be fun to look back over a history of my reading life.

Young Childhood: My mom read to me from the start. In my earliest memories, I am sitting on the floor next to a pile of books, or even inside a little house I made out of books by stacking them carefully. I loved nursery rhymes, poetry, and rhyming stories the best.

My mom would bribe me to be good in the grocery store by promising to buy me a Little Golden Book at the end as a reward. I got a dollar once a week to spend on used comic books at Tom's Book Nook, where my mother got her weekly pile of cheap romance novels.

I was also really fond of those records you could get that would read the book along with you and make a chime when it was time to turn the page. I must've read The Story of Ferdinand thousands of times that way and would say "smell the flowers" along with the narrator.

Later Childhood: I haunted libraries as an older child. I was a Summer Reading champion, loading up on as many books as I could carry. My school librarian was practically my best friend. She always seemed to know what I would like. The book mobile ladies kept a stash under the seat with me in mind, and wouldn't let other kids check them out until after they'd been past my stop.

I remember one summer when I decided I would read the entire collection and started working my way down the shelves, starting with A. I found some things I would never have read otherwise that way. (I didn't finish that project).

This is when reading became social for me. I found other readers and we'd talk about characters we loved and share books back and forth. To this day, some of my favorite conversations are about books and I get great joy from randomly running into someone who loves a book I love.

I started writing during these years, making a name for myself as the Occasional Poet of Grandview Elementary. Got a crush on someone? Ask Samantha to write a poem for you. They're sure to check Yes on the "do you like me" note. Is it Thanksgiving? I bet Samantha has a poem about that. Grandma's birthday? Yep, she's got one for that, too.

Adolescence: My middle school and high school librarian was also excellent. I think she bought
books specifically for me and my other bookish friends.

She'd hide new books under the counter sometimes and bring them out only for us, making sure we'd be the first to get to read them. We were into creepy and spooky things. She indulged our taste for teen thrillers and stocked VC Andrews and Lois Duncan for us.

When I was ready for something more, she showed me Shirley Jackson and Patricia Clapp, authors of books that still give me a thrill to think about. The Haunting of Hill House and Jane-Emily remain favorites to this day.  She gave me Daphne duMaurier and Charlotte Brontë, too. I still remember the way she'd slip me books with an air of subversion, making me feel like there was something special about me that made me worthy to read these particular books.

I still wrote poetry during these years, mostly dark and self-pitying verses about broken hearts and unrequited longing.

This is when I first tried to write a book as well. I was co-writing a tennis-themed teen romance novel with my best friend during some of those years on a computer so basic that you had to switch between two 5 1/4 inch floppies, one holding the software, one holding the story. In a box somewhere, there are yellowing pages printed out on a dot-matrix printer. We never finished it.

College/Early Adulthood: My undergraduate years consisted mostly of required reading since I was an English major. Luckily, I was asked to read some fantastic work. This was when I found contemporary poetry, moving to living poets as well as beloved dead ones like Emily Dickinson (still my favorite).  That's when I found Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, Stephen Dobyns, as well as my professor-poets George Eklund and Michelle Boisseau.

I wrote mostly poetry during this time, continuing through my twenties and into my early thirties with only occasional forays into fiction and essay.

I read less fiction during these years, partly because I lived in rural Alaska in a community with no bookstore or library. Luckily, I already owned enough books by that point to keep myself in words for years. I did read a fair number of comics and graphic novels, having found a subscription service that didn't eat me alive in shipping charges to Alaska.

My 30's: I moved back to the Lower 48 during these years. Tumultuous times, full of moving, child-rearing, divorce and remarriage, more moving, job-changing, etc. This is when I started feeling like I didn't have time to read. I read fewer books in this decade or so than during any other time of my life.

I read mostly to escape. Mysteries. Ghost stories. Graphic novels. It could take me weeks to finish a single book. Though, of course, I read to my children (first the one, then both of them).

We began to haunt libraries together, loading up on stacks of books as tall as my little girls. We fell in love with Sandra Boynton, who was not someone I read as a child, and revisited my old favorites like The Berenstain Bears and Dr. Seuss. We learned about Mo Willems and other delightful new writers. As they got older, we moved on to the Spiderwick Chronicles and Sisters Grimm, Harry Potter and Rick Riordan's Olympus series.

This is when I found audiobooks again: on CD. No beep to tell me when to turn the page now, but great narrators and engaging stories.

I'd borrow them from the library and we'd listen to them in the car, or I'd pick them up at yardsales. Mostly I couldn't afford them new (they were pretty pricey).

I didn't yet read e-books, though I'd begun to hear of them. I didn't yet use Audible. I didn't have a tiny computer in my pocket like I do now. Just a flip phone and spotty service back then.

My writing dropped off during this time, too. My reading and writing have always fueled each other, so that makes sense to me.

My 40's (so far): Technology is so much more a part of my reading life than it ever has been before! I'll often get a book as an ebook with whispersync to Audible and listen to it on my Echo or my phone or through my car's stereo system. It's wonderful the way all these things sync up and let me pick up where I left off almost effortlessly, dropping me back into the same story regardless of my current location. I also use my library's free service to get ebooks and audiobooks.

I'm a part of two book clubs (a classics book club, and a neighborhood one) and I read a lot of work by my colleagues and friends in the writing world, so my TBR list isn't getting any shorter, but it is growing more diverse. Sometimes I get frustrated that too much of my reading time isn't what I personally chose, but I get a pretty good balance of personal choice and networking or social reading.

I don't buy or even borrow nearly as much paper as I used to. After 40+ years of collecting books, and setting up house with a man who has collected books only a couple fewer years than me AND is an RPG gamer (more books!) AND raising two readers…well, I have to be realistic about space. We can't afford a bigger boat, and ebooks don't take up physical space. I'm not very good at culling what I already have, but I'm pretty disciplined about not bringing more physical books in (at least for myself: I still buy and borrow them for the youngest kid).

At first, I didn't like reading ebooks, but it's grown on me. I like that I can pull my phone out of my pocket and read a book. Since my phone is always with me, 21st century girl that I am, I am always carrying a nearly unlimited amount of reading material. It makes all the waiting time in my life into potential story joy, like Rumplestiltskin spinning straw into gold.

Audiobooks let me read while I'm doing other things that don't really occupy my brain like laundry, dishes, or driving familiar routes. If anything, with all these venues to books, I think I'm back to reading almost as much as I did as a child! In fact, according to Goodreads, where I began to track such things a few years ago, I've already read 49 books this year. Not too shabby for a woman with two full time jobs and a household.

As my reading has picked up, so has my writing. I committed to a daily writing habit when I turned 42 (Thanks Douglas Adams!) in an effort to finally make a go of it. I've seen three of my novels and several stories and novellas into print since then, and now have a daily writing chain more than five years long.

I've still got a little bit of my 40s left, so here's hoping the trend continues!

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