It is no secret that I love books.
Mind you I prefer actual, physical books to electronic books. Call me weird, but I like my books to have weight and take up space on bookshelves. They don’t need to be recharged, they don’t have issues with sun-glare when I’m reading outside, and my reading is not interrupted by notifications from whoever it is that is trying to reach me by email or messenger. Most of all, I prefer to know that the book I am reading will still be mine to read when I wake up in the morning, and not have been removed from the library due to some sort of publishing rights squabble. (that has happened to me twice).
I also love that you can use books for so many other things besides reading. If you own enough books and shelves, your house pretty much decorates itself. You can use books propped under your computer if you need to raise it up, or wedge a book in the window to keep it open. Physical books provide an actual physical barrier between you and anyone around you and project an aura of “I’d love to talk but, as you can see, I’m busy at the moment.” However, I will read books online in a pinch and I have several apps that allow me to read books on my phone when the need arises.
One of the most annoying things about e-books are how the apps always want to get involved in what I should be reading next. “Books Recommended for You.” Reads one list. “Books like (insert the title of the last book I just read) reads another. “Books we think you’ll like” says a third.
Seriously? You think that you can assume you know what I like based on the last few books I’ve read? I mean, sure, I’ve just listened to the whole of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” series again. Does that mean that all I want to read next are Stephen King novels? Or Horror fiction? Yeah, that is a big nope. Today it might be Stephen King, tomorrow it may be a travel book by Bill Bryson, a Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, a book on quantum physics by Michio Kaku, something sweet and magical by Sarah Addison Allen, a graphic novel or a Dan Brown adventure.
I do not read because I enjoy a particular genre. I read to be awed by an awesomely told story, or to learn new information on a topic that intrigues me. I read for the pure joy of it.
I still remember the joy that filled me up like a hot air balloon as a little girl, when I realized that my newfound ability to read had opened up incredible vistas of possibilities; whole worlds of wonder. I was sitting on the floor of my grandfather’s office which was lined with floor to ceiling bookshelves. I was waiting for him to get off the phone so I could tell him that grandma said it was time for dinner. Out of boredom I pulled a book off the shelf and thumbed through it, looking for pictures I could look at while I waited. Except that this time the beginning of the text caught my eye.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
It was the first line from Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities”, though I had no clue who Dickens was, nor did I care. What astounded me was that I could read! There were words in this book, a book I had never opened before. I had opened and it and found words I knew! Words that I could read! Of course, there were words in the books my first-grade teacher had been using for us in reading class, but this was a big person book; a real book. I remember looking up at the walls of books that lined my grandfather’s office and realizing that each and every one of those books had words in them. Each book had words that could be read. The thought that there were so many books to be read was simultaneously astounding and overwhelming. When my grandfather got off the phone and asked me why I was crying, I was startled to find that my face was wet with tears. But they weren’t sad tears, they were happy tears. So many stories, so much information, just in this one room! I couldn’t wait to get started.
Even before I had learned to read on my own, I had always loved having my mother, grandparents and aunts read stories to me while cuddled on the couch, or when they were tucking me into bed. I adored the stories on records too (yes, there were books on records before there were books on tape, CD, or available to stream/download) where a man or woman with a lovely warm and rounded voice would read stories out loud to you if you put the arm of the record player down on the record just right. But being a child, I wasn’t in charge of the books and records that were chosen for me. Once I was able to read for myself, however, that all changed. I could read anything! I wanted to read everything. And so, I did.
Of course, I didn’t read everything. No one ever has. But that day in my grandfather’s office marked a turning point for me. I began reading everything I could get my hands on. At first it didn’t matter if it was a well written story or not, or if it was a story at all. I had no preference for one kind of book over another. I was like a dry sponge, soaking up all the information I could get my hands on.
I learned fairly quickly that while my grandfather did indeed have a large collection of books, at least 70% were medical texts of one kind or another (he was a doctor) and most of those were well beyond of my reading level at the age of six. But on his shelves, I did discover books on the Titanic, Great Fires of North America, Architecture of the 20th century, WWII, various stories by Dickens (he had a leather-bound set of Dickens’ complete works), a history of Great Britain, poems by Edgar Allen Poe a book of short biographies of US Presidents through Nixon, and a “complete history” of Native American tribes, all of which I puzzled through, looking up the harder words in the dictionary so I could understand what they meant.
In my Grandmother’s bookshelves I found all sorts of Christian “mission” stories and literature such as “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” a complete series of “Signature Lives” books that ranged from Edith Cavell and Clara Barton to George Washington, Nikola Tesla, Amelia Earhart and George Washington Carver, as well as an illustrated “Foxes Book of Martyrs” which, when read at the age of eight gave me nightmares for months.
Once I had exhausted all of the books in our house that were not medical texts, I moved on to the town library, where my mom would take me once a week and let me pick out a stack to take home. Initially, I read more non-fiction books than fiction. This was not because I preferred non-fiction, but because non fiction was the only genre that my conservative Christian family would allow me to check out of the library. Sometimes I could convince them to let me check out a fiction that was based on a true story, but only if I could prove that it was based in fact.
It always seemed odd to me that the mom and grandparents who had read me Winnie-The-Pooh, Blueberries for Sal and the Ugly Duckling as a little girl were so opposed to me reading things like the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time, the Phantom Tollbooth or The Wolves of Willoughby Chase on my own.
It didn’t get any better as I got older. Though I was allowed to go to the library on my own after I turned 12, my library selections would be reviewed by my family when I got home to make sure that I was only reading approved items. If I was caught trying to sneak in a fictional story, I would lose my library card for a week.
When I became a teenager, and a little more subtle, I would try to take out a few fictional books here and there and stow them in my school bag, away from prying eyes. Of course, this technique was discovered and my family would go to the library and request a list of the items that I had checked out. If there was anything on the list that was not considered appropriate. I would lose my library privileges for a month.
All of this scrutiny did absolutely nothing to dampen my need to read – and to read more than non-fiction. Luckily, I befriended librarians both at school and at the town library who were sympathetic to my situation, and would “hold” a book I was reading behind the desk without me checking it out and let me read it in installments at the library. Needless to say, the library became one of my favorite places to hang out both at school during study halls or free periods, and at the community library on weekends and during the summer holidays. I would always check out a couple of non-fictions to justify my visit to the library in case someone had seen me go in and mentioned it to my parents.
Of course, I found ways around this. I managed, in addition to the non-fiction books I legally checked out, to work through at least a novel a week during the school year by reading them in the library, and 2-3 novels a week during the holidays.
My insatiable need to read more – to learn more, always more – worried my family, and they would routinely provide me with stacks of young adult religious stories, biographies on “appropriate” historical figures, encouraging me to read those if I was going to read and discouraging me from even asking questions about anything that didn’t fit their definition of “acceptable topics” and I grew to resent their suggestions.
Which explains why I find the “recommended for you” suggestions so annoying. Don’t try to manipulate my reading choices dude, I have had more than enough of that.