Friday, February 04, 2011

An Autobiography of Reading

As an assignment for my Young Adult Literature course, I was asked to write an autobiography of reading. For those of you who love to read, or even those who do not, it is a really neat exercise. My thoughts are below. When you write yours, do share!

An Autobiography of Reading
For my first three years of life, I was an only child. Life was peaceful and my parents were doting and engaged. Being the child of two people who love to read and learn meant that they took great pleasure in introducing me to stories, music, libraries, and museums. From the beginning, I was taught that reading was not only a special activity, but also something that could be done everyday to enhance my daily experiences.

Some of my earliest memories involve my mother and I sitting on a flowered, 70’s style sofa reading the stories of Thornton Burgess and E.B. White in front of the large windows of our post and beam house. Burgess was a local author from Massachusetts and my mother tells me we frequented the Burgess Museum located in the town in which we lived. In particular from this era, I remember crying with my mother over the death of Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web. Sometimes my mom had trouble continuing to read aloud and we had to take a break to garner strength to go on. I think my mother taught me empathy through her emotional connections with Wilbur, Charlotte, Peter Cottontail, Jimmy Skunk, and many other characters. While these may have been the first times I cried over a book, they were certainly not the last.

At the age of three and a half, I became a big sister. My brother was born very prematurely and was in the hospital for quite some time before he could come home. During this time, my paternal grandparents spent a lot of time with me. Grandpa enjoyed reading me the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. Though the reading of stories did not make me any kinder to my new little brother (I would hit him over the head with my mother’s hair brush when she was not looking), I think reading helped me adjust to the new family dynamics.

According to my mother, we often went to the local library for story hour and regularly checked books out of the library. Along with the books, I frequently listened to musical versions of stories like Cinderella and Snow White on my little record player. My mom says I really loved to read and listen to stories, but I do not have many memories of this. Though they often read to me, my parents did not try to teach me how to read as they were not sure how to do so. They thought my teachers were better prepared for this task.

Jump ahead to the age of seven when I was in first grade and welcoming my second brother. We lived in a small town in Kentucky and I was a student in the class of Mrs. Neuman. It was in Mrs. Neuman’s class that I learned how to read. While I do not remember the process of learning to read, my mother tells me that I picked it up right away and never looked back. By the end of first grade, I was reading chapter books and helping my mom read to my brothers. One particular memory I have from this age is my mother reading E.B. White to my brothers and I, telling us to shut our eyes and imagine what the characters and the settings looked like. She told us the joy of reading was in the freedom to use and develop our imaginations. Given my brothers’ lust for life, these were some of the quieter moments in our household.

At age eight, my family moved again to a town in Massachusetts in the middle of January. I was the new girl in school with buck teeth, glasses and a Kentucky accent. During this adjustment phase, I was reading the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Margeurite Henry. These books took me away from the snowy, new town to places of wonder, beauty, and intrigue. In springtime, I discovered the joys of reading in the shade of the pine grove in our backyard and on the branches of the Weeping Willow just beside our carport – quiet, tranquil places away from my rambunctious brothers.

By third grade, I was well settled in to my new town and had formed a lovely relationship with the school librarian, Mrs. Wolkenbreit. In me, Mrs. Wolkenbreit recognized a voracious, curious reader who was open to many genres and ideas. She told me that I would have the responsibility of helping her choose books for the library’s collection. I needed to report back to her on all the books I was reading so she would know what books to choose for the library. At the time, it was the most wonderful thing anyone could have told me. I do not remember specific authors from that period, but I do know I was exposed to many types of books: novels, biographies, non-fiction, novellas, short stories, memoirs, and more.

The summer of my fourth grade year, I was finally allowed to ride my bike to a branch of the public library and pick out my own books. The librarian there was my summertime Mrs. Wolkenbreit. She remembered what kinds of books I liked to read and would have some selected when she thought I might be visiting her again. She always asked what I thought of the books I was returning and what I might like to read next. Beyond her kindness, I remember her fingers – always dry with paper cuts, but quick to pat me on the back. She was a part of my life for the next five years we lived in Massachusetts.

From fourth grade to seventh grade, I developed a deep curiosity about World War II, the Holocaust, the A-bomb, and the Vietnam War. I began reading books like Memoirs of Auschwitz, Number the Stars, The Devil’s Arithmetic, So Far from the Bamboo Grove, Fallen Angels and others. During this time, I asked a lot of why questions. In sixth grade a classmate of mine asked our teacher, Mr. Noel, how many people he had killed in Vietnam. Mr. Noel immediately sent Charlie to the principal’s office and left the room. This tense moment only fueled my need to understand how human beings could do such damage to each other. Something I think I still seek in the books I read today.

To take a break from these serious themes, I read the Nancy Drew, Babysitter’s Club, Sweet Valley High, and R.L Stine thriller series. Starting in third or fourth grade, I discovered my mother’s stash of Harlequin romance novels kept in paper bags in her closet. I would sneak a few into my room on a regular basis and hunt through them for the “steamy” parts. Much was learned from these books. Now I call these books pallet cleansers – a way to clear away or absorb the taste of the more serious books to prepare for further heavy reading.

In junior high school, I continued my exploration of humanity through John Grisham, Bryce Courtenay (particularly The Power of One), and young adult level romance novels like Dance With Me by Jahnna Beecham. Beyond these few authors, I do not really remember what I read during this period. I do not even remember what books were assigned for summer reading or in English class.

At the age of fifteen, my family moved again, to Rhode Island. Again, I was the new girl only this time I was no longer plagued by buck teeth, glasses or a southern accent. Sadly, that did not make the transition any easier. Instead, I was the “hippy, grunge” girl in a very “preppy” high school. The first year did not go well, with regular snubs from sports teammates and most other people. It was during this adjustment year that I was exposed to Shakespeare for the second time. In ninth grade, at my old school, we had read Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth and I had really liked them. They were tough, but also really lovely. In tenth grade, at my new school in Rhode Island, we read Julius Caesar and I grew to hate Shakespeare. When we moved on to The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, I began to wonder if I still liked to read. It seemed like my teacher was killing my love of reading. The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness and A Separate Peace, read the following year, began to renew my faith, but only a bit. School reading was just no longer fun.

Outside of school, I do not recall what I was reading in high school, but I know I was always reading. Following the birth of my second brother, I almost always had a book with me. When my family went on road trips, I brought a stack of books with me out of necessity. While my brothers poked, prodded, and tortured each other and my parents, I had my nose in a book. Survival instincts at their best! Sadly, many of those titles now escape me.

College was a time of copious reading. My freshman writing course, “Sex, Love, and the Twentieth Century Novel” introduced me to the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald (beyond The Great Gatsby), and James Baldwin. After the course, I explored more of their writings to my great pleasure. Given my major in Theatre and Dramatic Literature, I soon fell in love with plays while reading Arthur Miller, Shakespeare, Athol Fugard, Paula Vogel, William Wycherley, and many more. I also discovered the works of James Herriot, Barbara Dimmick, and David Sedaris. My junior year of college saw the beginning of my love affair with the Harry Potter series. Friends always asked me how I could read so many books while also maintaining good grades. My secret – reading for pleasure every night before bed, whether it was one page or a whole book.

In my twenties, I began to read much more. Fiction had always been my go-to genre, but some forms of non-fiction caught my eye. I read wonderful books such as Bachelor Girls by Betsy Israel and Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz – non-fiction books that explored history and human nature with humor and wit. In my fiction-reading world, I read Jasper Fforde, Gregory Maguire, Cormac McCarthy, and Jonathan Safran Foer to name a few. During this period, I also decided to read some of the “classics” I had missed in high school and college. I discovered The Grapes of Wrath, On the Road, Brave New World, The Count of Monte Cristo, and the Sherlock Holmes series. Over and over again, books from past and contemporary authors broke my heart, gave me hope, challenged my opinions, and brought me to new, unexplored places. My joy of reading had returned in great force and has not abated since.

In my late twenties and early thirties, I continue to read a variety of authors and genres. Some books that really stick out include On Foot to the Golden Horn by Jason Goodwin, White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar, and most things by Walter Moseley. A good friend of mine also recommended some graphic novels, including Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (for whom I plan to name a daughter, should I have one) and Fables by Bill Willingham. As I move into my thirties, I have developed a deep interest in reading books that have been translated from other languages, or that deal with the migration/immigration experience.

Young adult literature reappeared in my life when I was about twenty-six. My best friend became a school library teacher and reminded me of the joys of young adult literature. I explored classic children’s and young adult authors including Lewis Carol, Roald Dahl, and Frank Baum while discovering new authors such as Markus Zusak, Philip Pullman, Sherman Alexie, Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Suzanne Collins, Meg Cabot, and Scott Westerfeld. The authors listed here are my particular favorites because they transport me into other worlds, question my morals/values/opinions, ask me to dream bigger, command me to feel something, and often make me laugh while doing so. The strong feelings elicited by these authors cause me to rave about them to anyone and everyone I speak with about reading – my topic of choice at parties.

In the past ten years, I have also developed a strong relationship with my pallet cleanser authors. I am currently in passionate relationships with Jennifer Crusie, Mary Kay Andrews, Sue Grafton, Stella Rimington, Janet Evanovich (the Stephanie Plum series), John Le CarrĂ© and Kathy Reichs. Jennifer Crusie and Mary Kay Andrews serve as my adult pacifiers, reading them over and over again, particularly in times of great stress or sorrow. They are my friends – knowing just what to say to make everything better.

My reading life has been one of depth and commitment, fluffiness and laughter, and sometimes both. Without books, I am not sure what kind of person I would be or what kind of dreams I would have for myself. Because of reading, I am a more articulate, empathetic, balanced, and creative person. Having traveled all over the world and into many time periods through the experiences of children, teenagers, adults and adults of all ages, fictional and real, I have lived a thousand blessed and full lives.

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