Book Life

I almost got in trouble for reading too much when I was in nursery school at Washington State University where my parents taught. The school had student teachers whose job it was to observe children’s interactions. After I had been there three weeks, the head of school called my parents. She gravely informed them that the student teacher observing me was upset because I mostly sat in a tiny nook and read books all day instead of interacting with the other children. My parents told her that was fine with them.

I recall very few television stories from my childhood. But I remember many, many books. My parents read to us; all of the Dr. Seuss books, then longer books like Old Yeller. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’ Dell. I read all the Nancy Drew books and Encyclopedia Brown series. I read The Little House on the Prairie Books, Anne of Green Gables and Pollyanna. I read Where the Red Fern Grows and my mom found me one day sitting on the living room floor in a puddle of tears. “My god, what’s the matter?” She cried, and I replied, sobbing, “this, this book!” She nodded in understanding.

Both of my parents were avid readers. My dad read history books mostly. My mom reads a variety of books — novels, short stories, fiction, nonfiction. At one point, they belonged to the Book of the Month club.

I recall trips to the Whitman County Public Library to get books. I loved being part of the summer reading club. Mom would take me downtown to the low-slung building, and we would both leave with a stack of books piled high to our chins. To this day, one of the first things I do when I move to a new town is to get a library card.

As we got older, dad read longer books such as The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring aloud to me and my sister. I loved the books much I read them again myself. I graduated to more adult authors and books — Issac Asimov, Margaret Atwood. I read poets like Sylvia Plath.

I went through reading phases as a teenager. When we lived in England, I read every book that Agatha Christie wrote. I went through a Thomas Hardy phase. There was a Charles Dickens and Theodore Dreiser phase, as well as a dark Russian novelist phase, where I delved into Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Gogol. Lest you think I stuck to the classics, I went through a Barbara Cartland phase — a novelist who wrote Victorian romance novels.

I loved these different views and perspectives. I still do. I love to sit in a quiet space and read. I love to read outside in a shady place on a warm day. I love to read inside with a cosy fire and a cup of tea while it rains outside. I love to read in bed before going to sleep. I love to read on airplanes and in waiting rooms. I love to read companionably with another person nearby doing the same thing.

I come from a long line of readers. Legend has it that my grandfather would come down and find my grandmother and father up, long after bedtime, sitting in chairs reading. He would yell at them — don’t you know what time it is?! Get to bed! And they would look up, dazed from whatever world they had been inhabiting and slowly make their way to bed to find some sleep.

So when my son Emile was born, I immediately began to think of all the things I could read to him. We had Goodnight Moon and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Just before my dad died, he and I intently debated which Dr. Seuss books to buy him first — Go Dog Go, Fox in Socks and Green Eggs And Ham made that list.

When Emile turned nine, he was the right age for me to start reading the Harry Potter books to him — the first three had been published. I would read him a chapter every evening, and when I was finished with it, he would beg me for another one. I would try to resist — it’s bedtime, I would say — but I would often give in.

I read the first three books to him, and suddenly he was old enough to read the next book himself. We heavily anticipated the arrival of fourth book, and we actually ordered it from a bookstore in Memphis where a close friend was getting married the day after the book came out. During the after-wedding festivities, my son and several other children of the same age found quiet spots to start reading while the adults danced to lively music nearby.

When the last book in the series came out, my son, now between his junior and senior years in high school, was at a summer camp at the University of Arkansas. I promised him that I would get the book at the midnight release and bring it to him the next day. What I did not promise was that I wouldn’t read it first.

It had been many years since I had read a book in one day. Sitting down with that last Harry Potter book for a day was magical. I laughed. I cried. When I finished the book, I felt bereft, leaving a world I had grown to love behind.

My phone rang. It was Emile.

“Do you have it?”

“Yes.”

“Can you bring it over?”

“Yes.”

I drove to the campus dorm where he and others were staying. I pushed open the front door and saw several teens. Their eyes widened when they saw what I was holding, and I gripped the book tighter.

Emile came downstairs, eyes glowing, gave me a hug and scampered off. Later, he told me that a bunch of his friends had watched 300 that night, but that he had elected to stay behind and read.

To this day, I still read voraciously. I kept a book journal this year, and I average about three books a month for a total of 40 books. I like to read a variety of books. I read fiction, nonfiction, history, biography, memoir. I’ve read science fiction, mystery, romance. This year I read Becoming by Michele Obama; Stalin’s Daughter; A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles; All the Light we Cannot See; and Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, to name but a few.

In 2012, I finished my master’s degree in French literature after taking classes over the course of six years, and during that time I immersed myself in books ranging from the troubadour literature of the Middle Ages to Rabelais to the rationalists Racine and Corneille and the romantics Stendhal and Hugo. I’ve also read books by great francophone writers such as Assia Djebar, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Albert Memmi. We read short stories and epistolary novels and I learned so many things about the culture and history of many places that I would never have known about any other way.

I’ve also been part of two beautiful book clubs, one in Arkansas and one in Florida, that opened my eyes to books I might never have read otherwise. For instance, someone suggested that we read a book called Devil in the White City by Eric Larsen, who I had never heard of before. The book was set around the turn of the 20th century and was about the World’s Fair in Chicago. I shrugged my shoulders and prepared to be bored.

Instead, the book fascinated me. Larsen’s writing was riveting. I have since found and read every book he has written, including Dead Wake, a book about the sinking of the Lusitania during World War I. Even though you know the ship sinks, it’s one of the most moving books I have ever read.

I still feed my reading habit through the library, but also have the great fortune that my mom and I enjoy many of the same sorts of novels. So my mom sends me boxes of books after she has accumulated a bunch of them. It’s uncanny how, when I get to a point where I think, “I’m just about to run out of books to read,” a brown cardboard box will appear on my doorstep, filled with the next series of bedside reading.

Reading has expanded my horizons and my knowledge of the world far beyond my wildest expectations. I am grateful to my parents for creating an environment where reading was part of the fabric of our lives.

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