Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” – Groucho Marx
My grandmother had a canvas bag at one time with that quote on it… she may even still have it. The bag was probably a freebie or a dollar-buy from the now defunct Waldenbooks back goodness-knows-how-long-ago. I used to love that quote as a kid, though it took me a while to actually get it. Irony wasn’t my strong point until I got a bit older.
The other day I was thinking about books. Well, let’s be honest here, I do that a lot (if you can’t tell from my monthly book wrap ups). This time though I was thinking about the physical act of reading and why it’s been such a huge part of my life. Why DO I read six books a month? Why do I have two floor to nearly-ceiling bookshelves packed with paperbacks even after having given away loads. What is it about books and reading that capture me?
My grandparents always read to me when I was a kid. Memom and Granddad both had preferences for the kinds of books they’d read to me. Memom always made it known that it was going to be a “short book!” while Granddad seemed to be okay with reading just about anything to me, though more often than not it was Memom who did the reading.
Both of my grandparents were pretty big readers themselves. Before his stroke, I remember my Granddad being a Stephen King addict, the newest book always on his nightstand. Memom read quite a bit too, but I think she reads more now than she used to. Hell, she reads more than me in a month!
My first favourite book was “Henry’s Awful Mistake” by Robert Quackenbush (something tells me that’s a pen name). I think I particularly partial to the book because Henry the duck’s first name was the same as my last and that just tickled me silly. Finding the ant on each page at Granddad’s insistence was always fun too… don’t worry if you don’t get it… you have to read it to understand. I still have my copy of “Henry’s Awful Mistake” back home in the USA and there are some days where I honestly, desperately miss it. There was something so familiar about that book; it even travelled to university with me. Only recently I found out that Henry has a series of books though now they’re really hard to lay hands on. I keep my eye out though!
Somehow, as the years went by, I grew to love books and even care about them. I felt a tremendous sense of guilt or sadness when I would damage one or lose one or even give one to someone to borrow. They felt like my friends and, I guess, they sort of were my friends. I remember vividly the guilt and sorrow I felt, having splashed around in the bathtub one evening, finding that I’d completely soaked my Golden Books edition of “Sleeping Beauty” that had been given to me by Memom and Granddad. I remember crying when mom had to throw the book away.
I was addicted to the Berenstain Bears early on as well. Every time we went to the grocery store, I begged, pleaded and bargained for a new Berenstain Bears book. Usually I got one. My favourite was “Berenstain Bears In the Dark,” but I probably had about 20 different books.
In ’97, there was a huge flood and my grandparents lost a lot of their possessions and their house was ruined. Along with all of the mess, a majority of the books “floated.” My copy of “The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, given to me by a neighbour a few doors down also succumbed to the deluge of muddy brown water. Curiously, that was one of the items I mourned the most after the waters cleared and we got in to do some mucking out. Years and years later, in a used bookstore on the always-trendy Bardstown Road, I happened across a copy of the same edition and was brought to tears, but I had no money. My best friend bought it for me as a gift and it still sits on my shelf back home.
I was always curious about books and wanted to read everything. As all kids are, I was especially interested in “banned” and illicit books. When I was 12, I tried to check out Lolita from the public library. I doubt I would have understood a majority of it but a librarian flagged it up nonetheless and my Memom made me put it back. I read it a few years later and was less than scandalized.
As I got older, I dipped into the teen fiction and discovered Francesca Lia Block, one of my favourite authors even now. “I Was a Teenage Fairy” could have been written about me and I read my first copy so many times it fell apart and I had to buy a new one. Block’s writing style was one of my first great influences — her language was lyrical and poetic and I found myself exploring language a lot more after reading her books. She made me want to be a writer.
Eventually I went away to college. I still read but with a huge course load and a rapidly developing social life, I didn’t read nearly as much as I would have liked. During my four years at university, I did discover several books and writers who have become favourites of mine to this day. I’ll read anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, especially “100 Years of Solitude.” And somehow I managed to go my entire life without reading Alice Walkers seminal work “The Color Purple” or Toni Morison’s “The Bluest Eye.” I started to experiment with non-western and African literature, falling in love especially with Indian fiction like “A Suitable Boy” which I’m still working my way through.
During school, I also read a lot of “life writing” for several classes which has since gone on to greatly influence what I read now and how I write. “Zami: A New Spelling of my Name” by Audre Lorde was one of the more influential books. Right now, I’m reading a fantastic book called “I to I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists.” It’s absolutely brilliant.
So that all is well and good, but still begs the question why. Why did I read so much? Why do I still lose myself in books? I think losing is the key there. Growing up, my life wasn’t horrible. It also wasn’t picture perfect either and there were several periods of discontent, tumultuous relationships and in between it all lots and lots of moving house. Looking back, I think I read so much so that I could lose myself. I could forget about the fact that I was being uprooted to yet another new neighbourhood, new school. I read so I could ignore the arguing in the next room. I read so I could tune out the boys calling me “boy” and “ugly” because I had hairy arms; the same boys later called me a “slut” because I had boobs before most of the other girls. I read to forget who I was, where I was and what I was doing.
I read now to take myself away from the crowded bus or tube carriage reeking of BO and stifling with a thousand different languages flying through to close air. I read now to choke the hurt when my husband and I fight. I read to relax and take my mind off how unhappy I sometimes feel doing the job I do and the city I do it in.
It’s not all negative though! Reading makes me tremendously happy. It makes me laugh, cry and fume. It’s a nice, relaxing break to lose myself in a story that’s not my own.
I’ve had a lot of reasons to read throughout my life and I only see the list growing in the future. So I’ll continue to read… until there’s nothing left to read.