Monday, April 9, 2012

Reading Habits

I was once a voracious reader. When I was a child, my mother used to joke that “a bomb could go off, and if Samantha was reading, she wouldn’t notice!” I think that may have nearly happened once: I have vague memories of being roused by a friend to rush outside because of the ringing fire alarm. I, of course, hadn’t noticed the strident noise; I was buried in my book. I was never one of those kids who spend their childhoods outdoors. At one summer day camp, I must have read through the scanty bookshelf three or four times, and ended up desperate for new material. The lowest grades I’ve ever received on a report card came in the elementary school subjects “Behavior” and “Work Habits.” I was tearful, until my parents read through the comments and learned that the poor grades were due to my habit of reading during class when I had already finished the assignment, or already knew the directions, or already knew the topic being taught. I’m sure my parents laughed at me, and I’m also sure they instructed me that reading has a proper time and place. I’ve made several friends due to my reading habit. One girl and I became friends on the elementary school bus. As the only two girls who spent that ride reading, we naturally gravitated toward each other because if we sat in the same seat, no one else would bother us or interrupt our books. Another friend made a particular effort to meet me in a high school English class because she was impressed that I carried a Star Trek book so openly, unafraid that anyone would mock me as a geek or a nerd. (I must confess that the thought that I might be laughed at had simply not occurred to me! It was the book I was in the middle of; of course I would carry it on top of my other binders and textbooks.)

Sadly, the start of college marked in many ways the end of an era. The one relevant to this discussion is the fact that I largely stopped reading for personal enjoyment. I had my own shiny new laptop, which gave me access to online television shows. I had moved halfway across the country to a tiny dorm room: by necessity, my book collection stayed home. Reading for homework took up so much time that by the end of the textbook chapters, articles, and research for paper-writing, it simply didn’t occur to me to pick up more books. But in my senior year, for sanity’s sake, I decided that free reading had to return. That year, all of my classes were within my major (music), and I was writing a senior honors thesis. I made the conscious effort to set time aside to read books that had nothing to do with classes, and those half-hours probably kept my academic life manageable.

The trouble is, of course, that by that point I had no idea what to read. I found a few new titles, but I mostly borrowed high school favorites from the library. The following summer, after the whirlwind of changes that graduating, getting married, and moving into your husband’s apartment causes, I rescued much of my childhood library from my mother’s basement and set it up on beautiful new bookshelves that my grandfather had handmade and gifted to us. With a part-time job and graduate school applications taking up most, but not all of my time, I had plenty of time to read through them. Re-reading these books was like rediscovering old friends. I had read them all many times before. Their rhythm, their cadences, their characters and plots were intimately familiar. Even after all this time, Ender still won Earth’s war; Hazel’s leadership and Fiver’s cleverness still led to the rescue of the Efrafan rabbits; Cimorene was just as practical a princess and the Red Star just as dangerous and foreboding as ever. But while these books hadn’t changed, I had. Old favorites like Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small and Ann Brashares’ Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants quartets couldn’t engage with the circumstances of my life anymore. Since young adult fiction was what I knew, I tried a few new ones with the help of my brand-new public library card. (Why, oh why, did it take me four years of living here in St. Louis before I found my local public library??) The trouble was, I was now a married adult, and the young adult genre just didn’t do it for me anymore.

Somehow – I can’t remember how – I ended up checking out the Penguin Classics hardcover edition of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This massive thing had an attached ribbon bookmark and endnotes, for goodness’ sake. Endnotes! I sank deep into Jane’s story and found myself delighted by the challenge, by its depth, by the breakfast conversations it started as I tried to make sense of my strong reactions. It took at least a month to get through this behemoth, but by the end of the book, it had become clear: a new era of reading has begun for me.


  1. Welcome to book blog land! I saw your comment at Shelf Love and thought I would visit. I fully agree with your goal in the next post - just keep writing. I wish I had done something like this - something to keep me writing - before beginning to write my own dissertation.

    No one will mind more bookish writing about music, or musical writing about books. Almost no one really does it. It would be a unique contribution to BookBlogLand.

    Would you believe that I wrote a little rhapsody on the St. Louis Public Library? It is a wonderful library; I miss it enormously.

    Best of luck!

  2. Thank you! That's very kind of you. What field are you in, if you don't mind my asking? What did you write your dissertation on?

    I enjoyed your lovely article about the St. Louis Public Library. I agree - libraries are really remarkable public institutions, and often have such fascinating history. If you thought it was nifty to see The Perpetual Curate, have you ever been to the Yale Rare Books library? They have a copy of the Gutenberg Bible on display! If not for the glass, you could reach out and touch it! Swoon.

    In any case, thank you for your kind welcome. All the best to you too.

  3. I was and am in the social sciences - not related to literature at all. I actually could not have had a book site back then - the program was too demanding and immersive, as a good program should be. But I wish I had known to keep writing.

    Now, the reason I enjoyed the St Louis libraries Margaret Oliphant collection so much was that I could read it! Not that I need to read an actual Gutenberg Bible.

  4. Someone may have been impressed by you reading while walking and not running into things, not that you were reading your Star Trek book openly. (Although the Star Trek book may have been the original draw.)

    Does it say something about me that I read a number of Tamora Pierce's quartets the other day and still enjoy them about as much as I did in high school?

    1. I don't know if I still have that skill - I haven't had much chance to exercise it!

      I still enjoy her too! Her books are very comfortable and nostalgic, and always entertaining. I don't dislike YA lit, I just didn't want to limit myself to them anymore. Does it say something about me that I have a terribly difficult time trying a new book? And that I won't generally do it unless someone tells me specifically what to try?

      PS. Miss you lots.

  5. So many people lately have listed Jane Eyre as the book that converted them into a journey through classic literature. It was my inspiration too! I bet Charlotte would love to know she's making waves. :)

    1. I hope she had some sense of how monumental her book was! I'm always delighted to hear how this fantastic novel also influenced someone else - and Jane Eyre is my first recommendation when people tell me they're interested to get into classics. If it started my love for classic literature, hopefully it can do the same for my friends too!