A Brief History of Reading Part I
(mine, not everyone else’s)
Although it is tempting tonight to try and be clever about today’s failed prediction of the rapture, I’ll resist. Most of my friends on fb – and the rest of the blogosphere – have that one covered already anyway. I’ve laughed and groaned at all the hilarity.
Instead I’m thinking about books and reading tonight. A couple of hours ago I was refilling yet another book shelf emptied for the big move (all within the house, so we could install new carpet).
Going through the old titles takes me back to various chapters of my own life. I unloaded a stack of mostly hokey devotional books from the 80s. I discovered that I own a copy of The Confessions of St. Augustine. Huh. Who knew? And I regrouped sections of poetry, spirituality, worship, women’s writing, Native American titles, middle and high school yearbooks, and a good bit of fiction.
My own history of reading comes creeping to mind. I remember the SRA board books from kindergarten at the Unitarian Church where I learned in earnest to read. Before that (as the family lore goes) I memorized my books and convinced babysitters and other unsuspecting adults that I could read. The primary colors of the SRA cards and phonetic spellings float through my memory.
I still have a shelf that includes my earliest books read to me first by my parents and later on my own. When I pick one of those musty titles up I’m transported back in time to an embodied memory of longing. I wanted so desperately to have adventures like the children in The Tip-Top Tree House or entertain my neighbors like the ones in Backyard Circus. My childhood adventures never measured up to those books. But I think I began narrating stories of my life internally even then.
By the time I reached fifth grade I was reading whatever I could put my hands on in the church and neighborhood libraries. I didn’t enjoy my school libraries very much. They were places where you couldn’t actually relax. You were supposed to accomplish something, but you couldn’t talk while you did it. For an extrovert this was painful. I usually felt judged and unwelcomed by librarians. But I took the books and read.
I read at home, in bed, outside, up in my tree, in the car. I read 100 books the summer after fifth grade. Mind you some of them were too small to count for much, but I was determined to make it to 100. A couple of years ago I came across that list. I liked mysteries and fiction of all kinds. The Great Brain books, Anne of Green Gables, Encyclopedia Brown, The Secret Garden, Watership Down, these all captivated my attention.
My first really serious book – one which challenged my innocence and upset my feminist sensibilities was in seventh grade. Mrs. Street assigned me (and only me) to read Hew Against the Grain by Sue Cummings, a historical novel set during the Civil War. It hooked my emotions in ways I had not previously experienced.
I continued to read through middle and high school, especially in the summers. And like all good Southern Baptists I read my Bible daily. Sometimes I even kept a record of that. Ah Baptist piety.
But as my summers filled up with youth ministry trips and reading became increasingly about school work, my love of it slowly drifted away. When I read Poe and Shakespeare and other classics in high school it felt like work. I had to think critically, but none of my teachers seemed to recall the sheer joy of it. Or least they didn’t convey that to me. On through college and seminary I read more and more. I read lots about religion, and women, and psychology. I lost my love of fiction altogether. I didn’t miss it. It was just gone without much of a trace. I wrote more in those years, but that was mostly because a teacher assigned it.
Then one day several semesters into seminary I happened onto the annual Spring Book Sale. It was a library fund raiser as I recall. And people donated all sorts of books which were sold for a quarter or fifty cents. Maybe a dollar for some fat systematic theology book. I probably bought several books that day, but only one stands out. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. I took it home and started reading. It is one of the Austin family stories. In it, Vicky’s grandfather is dying. That was the spring my own Grandpa Campbell was dying. I was hooked by the story. And by the sheer pleasure of reading. Scenes from that book still fill my mind . . . the barn stalls turned into living quarters, swimming with dolphins in a ring of sun light.
From that moment I fell madly in love with reading for the sheer joy of the story again. For the next fifteen years alongside books of theology and ministry I read all the fiction I could check out of the public library. It became my evening prayer . . . to read each night – usually just twenty minutes or so – before turning out the light. I always had a book of fiction (occasionally some other genre) on my bedside table.
So much joy came from this reading. Vacations to the beach included stacks from the library, and my husband and I would race through novels to see who could read the most in the week. He always won. He’s a faster reader than I am. I tended to read more slowly, savoring the dialog, the turns of phrase, the literary tricks and sensations of being lost in the stories.
I kept on reading all through my years of full time church ministry, into graduate school. Even through exams and dissertation writing, I kept on reading fiction alongside all the other scholarly reading.
Then I took a new job and things changed again. I’m not sure how to explain it exactly, but I’ve barely read a book of fiction in over two years. . .
(to be continued)