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Rediscovering My Inner Reader

As a kid, my parents called me “the house cat” because I could usually be found in the house curled up with a book while other kids were outside riding bikes or climbing trees. For as long as I can remember my bookishness was part of my identity. I loved getting lost in the magic of a good book. I still do. The funny thing is, I got completely away from that part of myself for a long time. It wasn’t a conscious choice. It just kind of happened.

I got a laugh out of the smart mudflap girl with her book. I wonder where she keeps her library card.

In retrospect, I realize that reading for pleasure was curtailed in college when text books necessarily replaced my escapist novels. I was too busy studying for the test to read for my own enjoyment. Then graduate school came with more text books, followed by a new marriage, then a career that had me commuting down the 405 freeway everyday. The arrival of two kids in less than two years put a stop to my reading altogether. An exuberant little boy was followed by a profoundly handicapped and very needy daughter. Those years were a blur of the usual busy mom stuff mixed with a healthy dose of therapy appointments, caregiving and the worry that accompanies a disabled and fragile child.

One day I realized that a decade had passed and I’d hardly touched a book. How had that happened? Life happens I suppose. I found my role as a new mom to be all consuming. Somewhere along the way, I lost an important part of myself, the bookish kid part. Well, my children are older now (we even added a third) and I like to think I’ve achieved some balance and perspective. I’m reading again and it’s sublime! I’ve read a lot of classics, some lovely memoirs and biographies, and some delectable novels. Until recently I was a member of not one but two book groups. I’m not a little sad to know that I missed out on ten years worth of great books. I don’t think I had to relinquish my library card in order to be a devoted young mother. In fact, I think it would have helped me get through those difficult years to escape into a good novel from time to time. I wish someone had sat me down when I was twenty-five and told me to keep on reading no matter what. Now my “to read” list is long and it’s constantly being added to. I’ll never get to the end of it but it will be fun trying!

So I’m curious. Have any of you had this experience of suppressing something that was fundamental to your personality? I suspect it’s a fairly common phenomenon. If so, I hope most of you didn’t let it go on for a decade. Oh, and any great book suggestions are appreciated! Here’s a list of a few books I’ve particularly enjoyed.

The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper

The Pleasure of My Company by Steve Martin

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Sugar Daddy and Blue-Eyed Devil by Lisa Kleypas

Lowell L. Bennion: Teacher, Counselor, Humanitarian by Mary Bradford

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

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27 Responses

  1. Jana says:

    I’ve found that if I’m going through a particularly stressful or emotional time in my life, I can temper some of the “drama” by reading a good novel. We all need to escape to another world occasionally…

    Right now I’m finishing up the 3-novel Steig Larsson series. I almost didn’t finish the series because of the violence in the first novel. And I’m finding the third one a bit tedious because of the writing style. But I’m loving the characters and the fast-moving plotline–it’s a perfect way to pass a 10 hour plane ride!

  2. kristine N says:

    When I was in high school I read voraciously. Once I got to college, that stopped, rather abruptly. Eventually I realized I needed to read occasionally for my own sanity and gave myself some time to read. It’s hard to continue that, though–I find it difficult to give myself the time to explore escapist fiction, especially now that I have a kid and am attempting to finish my PhD. I’ve also read a bunch of not so great fiction that made me question the utility of spending my time reading crap instead of doing something “productive.”

    Blogging has taken the place of my fiction reading, for better or for worse. Somehow it feels more productive (it’s on the computer; shorter; I’m learning and analyzing what I read; I can comment and commenting counts as writing, right?) so I can give myself permission to blog more easily than to sit down and read a book. For me, my childhood reading habit just turned into an adult blogging habit.

    Thanks for the list of books–I’ve only read The Hunger Games, but I enjoyed it. Having other people’s recommendations is always helpful when sifting through the numerous offerings out there!

  3. Stephanie says:

    Yes! I know exactly what you are talking about! I stopped reading for fun in high school when AP courses and extra-curricular activities took all my time. Fast forward two college degrees and five kids, and it’s been close to 20 years since I have really read for fun consistently. Just last night I started hunting through my bookshelf for something to read. My oldest is 10 and is reading for fun, and I am jealous.

  4. Marcia says:

    The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

    Best book I have read in years. So thought provoking about the South in the 60’s and race relations.

  5. Carol says:

    I agree with Marcia. “The Help” is one of the best books I’ve read in years.

    I just reread ” To Kill a Mockingbird.” What joy!

  6. Rebecca says:

    Jana, I also just read the Steig Larsson series. I know exactly which scene in the first book you are referring to. I tend to stay away from books with sadistic psychopaths but I kept going so I could discuss it with a bookish friend who had loaned me the books. Thrillers are not usually me favorite genre but they were gripping.

    I have The Help on hold at the library. I’m now number 12 of 152 people on the wait list. When my name comes up I’ll feel sort of smug, knowing that I have THE book that everyone else wants! I’m looking forward to that.

    I will have to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s been a very long time and I recently read a couple of articles about it in the Wall Street Journal. I’m glad that you found it just as wonderful the second time around.

    Kristine N admitted to reading some not so great fiction through the years. I’ll confess to reading quite a few romance novels this past year. This is a new genre for me and there are some great writers but also a lot of crap. The good ones are lovely escapist fiction. Very, very fun even if they aren’t particularly educational. I’m perfectly alright with that!

  7. Corktree says:

    Even though I’ve been in a director position for 3 years now, I feel a loss at not being able to sing in a large choir anymore. It was so much of my identity in school and brought a lot of satisfaction. I keep promising myself that someday I will join a community choir, but I’ve been bad at making it a priority. I think this next year is my year though…my Doula is a member of a large choir that performs regularly. Coincidence? We’ll see. 🙂

    My reading comes in spurts. I wish I could be more consistent with it though, because even when I get caught up in a story, I feel like losing myself in a book helps keep me from taking certain areas of my life too seriously (over-thinking certain situations or problems that should really just be let go). I need to figure out how to do that without escaping to a book I guess…

    I get all my best recommendations from my sister (the reader of the family).

    My favorites of the last year are:

    “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro
    “The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman
    “The Hunger Games”

    And I’m currently (finally) reading “The Help” and enjoying it.

    Next on my list…

    “The Secret Life of Bees” by Kidd
    “A Wind in the Door” by L’Engle ( I really liked “A Wrinkle in Time”)
    “Catching Fire” (sequel to Hunger Games)

    and…the sci-fi lover in me is finally going to read “Ender’s Game”.

  8. EmilyCC says:

    Rebecca, welcome! So glad to have you as a perma here!

    I’ve been frustrated by the amount of reading I’ve done since becoming a mom–I try to make up for it by listening to books on tape while I do housework, but it doesn’t feel the same.

    So excited for all these book suggestions though. More for me to listen to 🙂

  9. Deborah says:

    Welcome, welcome!

    I’ve been a book junkie for . . . a long time. A fact that was painfully reinforced when I moved 59 boxes of books across country last month. A few of my favorites to add to your list:

    Old School, by Tobias Wolff. Love, love, love. Only book I have read that accurately reflects how I feel about teaching and literature.

    The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison. If you’ve been intimidated by her other books, here’s a good place to start. Haunting, beautiful, painful, short.

    Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’ll get you think about your own personal 10,000 hours (and hoping that it’s not spent on laundry . . . )

    Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. I’ve written about this book on the blog before (http://www.the-exponent.com/2007/10/02/love-at-first-sight/) . . . but I just adore this novel.

  10. Deborah says:

    P.S. I tried ready The Help in the fall, got busy. Picked it up again this summer and made it through about half of it . . . and just don’t feel compelled to finish. Which probably means something is wrong with me 😉

    I wonder if part of me is uneasy about a white author writing the year’s consciousness-raising book about the African-American experience . . . ? It’s not that someone outside a culture can’t or shouldn’t write about a culture . . . Perhaps it’s that I’ve had several (white) women tell me (or blog about) how this book has opened their eyes (which is GREAT, btw), but I kinda wish they were saying that after reading Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or Zora Neale Hurston or Dinaw Mengestu (young author — pick pup The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears).

  11. Deborah says:

    All that said, I should probably finish it so that I have a right to said opinion . . . but I really think every woman should read The Bluest Eye for all it expresses about beauty, race, womanhood, power, and how we come to view the world and ourselves.

  12. Deborah says:

    And to answer your first (thoughtful) question — because if four comments in a row doesn’t make you feel welcome, I don’t know WHAT will — I have given up writing poetry for years at a time. And then something begins to gnaw at me, like a wild part of my soul that is outside of reasoned control, and I have to write. And I do, and wonder why I ever stopped. And then, of course, I stop again. That’s my dance with passion-suppression . . .

  13. Corktree says:

    Deborah, I’ve had the same thoughts reading “The Help”. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it as I tried to express to my sister the issues I had with the way she put the words of the characters into writing. Something just seemed off about it. I’m enjoying the story, and it certainly makes me think critically about the times, both then and now. But I agree, it would be nice to have this experience from someone that actually saw from the angle she is describing. I’m adding “And their eyes were watching God” to my list. I forgot that I’ve always wanted to read it.

  14. I’m right there with you, Deborah and Corktree. It was an enjoyable read, but nothing about it was unexpected. I wonder if it has made the blog “Stuff White People Like,” and I would love to hear black women’s response to it. That is, if they would ever want to.

    The Help = The Red Tent of 2010. Although, I liked it better than The Red Tent.

    My book group recently read The Elegance of the Hedgehog, while I really enjoyed once I finally got into it (about 100 pages in). Our next book is The Devil in the White City (which I need to get started on!) and after that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which I’m really looking forward to (and hoping we can get the author to come to our discussion some time when she’s home in Portland for a visit).

  15. Deborah says:

    Corktree/Janeannechovy: Just stumbled on this article that you might find interesting:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/25/AR2010062504125.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

  16. Rebecca says:

    I just picked up a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’ll move it up in my queue. Thanks for the suggestion Deborah!

    A couple of you have mentioned loosing something that was a passion for you like singing in a choir or writing poetry, at least for awhile. I know sometimes this is a conscious choice. We are hit with the fact that there are only 24 hours in the day and something has to give. Hopefully those types of situations are temporary. It’s sad for me to realize that my neglect of reading wasn’t even a conscious thing. I felt like I switched into a sort of survival mode for a few years there when I was barely keeping my head above water trying to raise young kids.

    I’m reminded of that scripture in the New Testament ” He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.” I know I was gaining something in those years, finding that I did have a strength within myself to cope with some very trying stuff, finding that there was a joy to be had in service to others. In the time I was so busy that I didn’t read, I was also gaining something. Still, there’s a crossover point where we can become completely out of touch with the things that we have been passionate about, particularly the things those things that make us unique or define us as individuals. The things that have always delighted us or have been a refuge. The challenge is to keep those things alive so we don’t wake up one day and wonder how we ended up this whole other person.

  17. Naismith says:

    I tend to roll my eyes when purists rave about how they must have the smell of a paper book. I like that too, but the reality of my life doesn’t allow it. I love that I can read books on my iPhone whenever I can (checkout line, bathroom, elevator) and even read books from the public library that way. I love that I can highlight sections, click on a word to look up in the dictionary right then and there.

    And I also listen to audiobooks while sewing, cooking, driving, etc. Yes, something is lost but sometimes something is gained. The Jim Dale narrations of the Harry Potter books are amazing. And when I showed up at book club after listening to Cry the Beloved Country, I was the only one who was comfortable pronouncing all those African words (which is also why I like listening to the old testament). And my public library also has downloadable audiobooks.

    So with all that technology, there has never been a better time in history to feed one’s inner reader.

  18. Corktree says:

    Deborah, that link was very enlightening. And frustrating. I wish things were different. I’m just glad I didn’t actually buy “The Help” and perpetuate it. I’ll make sure to make a purchase of “And their eyes were watching God” to add balance, but I know that’s not enough. I wonder if african american authors don’t get published as widely or with as much publicity because we don’t want to realize the scope of inequality that still exists.

  19. Dora says:

    With respect to the first query, I find that when I overbook my time, or am feeling very stressed by work or life situations, I spend less time doing what I enjoy, whether it be dancing, hiking, etc. It’s a rather vicious cycle. Generally the remedy is to force myself out of the door and just do it. Sometimes I marvel at the ridiculousness of the situation … stress preventing me from doing the things that I know will remedy the stress.

    In response to the second, let me say that I just love reading. And I’m one where the physicality of reading an actual book outweighs my love for high-tech-ness. It’s not so much the smell of paper, but the way it feels in my hands.

    Echo those who love SM Kidd’s _Bees._ There is just something compelling about the way she uses language.

    And I love OS Card’s character and story development in the Ender/Bean series, even if I sometimes find his dialogue unconvincing at times.

    And yes, there are loads of fiction books that just don’t merit the paper they are printed on. However, there are great non-fiction works that just stir the mind. Anything by Gladwell or Gawandi. _Mountains Beyond Mountains,_ _Three Cups of Tea,_ _Bookseller of Kabul._ There are just loads.

    And when I need something to connect me back to my childhood, I love books by Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, JK Rowling and Laura Ingalls Wilder.

  20. Naismith says:

    Oh, yeah, I forgot some recommendations…

    THE LADIES AUXILARY by Tova Mirvis. The story of an orthodox Jewish community in Memphis TN, it explores themes of conformity and belief to which many LDS women can relate.

    THE SPEED OF DARK by Elizabeth Moon. A sensitive exploration into the world of autism, without the profanity etc. in that more popular “curious incident” book.

  21. Caroline says:

    Welcome to the Exponent, Rebecca!

    As for books I’ve read in the last few years that I’ve loved….

    The Illuminator, The Mercy Seller, and The Heretic’s Wife by Brenda Rickman Vantrease. I love historical fiction, and she just brings it to life.

    The Starbridge Series and St. Benet’s Trilogy by Susan Howatch. These comprise nine books about various priests and characters related to the Anglican Church. Fascinating.

    And for pure escapist historical fiction/romance pleasure, Into the Wilderness by Sara Donati.

  22. Rebecca says:

    I have to make another book suggestion here. Naismith’s mention of The Speed of Dark made me think of another really thought provoking book I read recently called The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paulo Giordano. It’s a coming of age/ love story with very quirky memorable characters and it covers anorexia, as well as self-injurious behavior and Asperger’s syndrome.

    Caroline mentioned The Illuminator. I’ll second that one. If you liked Pillars of the Earth, you’ll love it. Nothing like reading about the middle ages to make you feel grateful for the women’s movement.

    I wanted to say a couple of things about the smart mudflap girl icon at the top of my post. It originated as part of an advertising campaign for the Wyoming Libraries. Administrators wanted to get more men to use the libraries. Part of the ad campaign was to send the stickers to auto repair shops throughout Wyoming, letting people know that the libraries have access to the Chilton auto repair database. Of course, the smart mudflap girl got a lot of flap. Speaking for myself, I love it. You can decide if it marginalizes women or subverts the dominant paradigm. I vote for subverts the paradigm with irony and humor. Also, I love men who think smart women are sexy.

  23. Jessawhy says:

    Rebecca,
    Welcome to Exponent. I’m so glad that you’ve joined us! It was lovely meeting you at the Sophia Gathering.

    I love to read, too, but find myself totally distracted by a book to the detriment of my housework and children. So, like you, I haven’t read much in the last ten years.

    I loved “The Book Thief” most recently and I’m in the final pages of “100 Years of Solitude” which is a classic. I’d recommend those to anyone.

    A few years ago I gave myself permission to not finish a book if I didn’t care for it or if it was too much for me emotionally. That’s been a great choice for me. One of those books I couldn’t finish (I read the beginning and end) was Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush. It was almost as depressing as A Thousand Splendid Suns, another book I could not finish. (On the other hand, I wished I hadn’t finished The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was too sexually violent).

    I don’t know if getting older is making me more sensitive or smarter, but I don’t love drama as much as I used to. I search for movies and books that are either funny or thoughtful, but not necessarily painful.

    Thanks for this thread. I didn’t realize that I’ve actually been reading quite a lot lately.

  24. aerin says:

    I love Barbara Kingsolver (“Pigs in Heaven”, “The Poisonwood Bible”). I don’t always agree with her, but I appreciate her characters.

    They’re older novels, but I love both “Cat’s Eye” and “The Robber Bride” by Margaret Atwood. Recently, I’ve enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s “The Wife”.

    May I also recommend short stories or essays? Personally, I’ve found those easy to pick up and put down as needed. I read “Mothers who Think” some years ago, and read their (more) recent compilations of essays about motherhood some months ago.

    I love reading, always have – and one of my goals is to be “well-read”, whatever that means anymore. It’s hard to imagine a life without one (or four) books waiting to be read.

    There are some websites that will help you keep track of what you’ve read. Also, some bookswap type sites where you can swap books with people and get credits (to have people send books to you). There are a lot of great authors and good books out there.

  25. Elaine says:

    I have been a voracious reader since I was three years old. As I was growing up, my mother and I had the same conversation over and over again:

    Mom: “Elaine, go out and do something.”

    Me: “I am doing something. I’m reading.”

    Mom: “Go outside and do something else.”

    My mother wasn’t a reader and just didn’t understand that, especially when I was a child and adolescent who didn’t have that many friends, the books (and in my head) were where I really lived.

    Then, when my mother became ill and I had to take care of her for several years (she had dementia and also developed cancer), my reading time diminished to almost nothing. Even when I was a student, I always found time to read non-school-related books, but while Mother was ill, I just couldn’t, especially as it evolved into a 24/7 sort of situation and remained that way for quite a long time.

    Only now, over a year and a half since my mother died, am I finally starting to be able to give myself permission to take several hours at a time and just read, rather than cramming my reading time into little increments when I can read while I’m doing something else or can’t do anything else, such as waiting in a line or eating a meal.

    I’m still not back up to speed; I used to be able to read a book a day, and now it takes me several days to get through a book. But I don’t think that’s really a bad thing. I take more time now to enjoy what I’m reading, and I allow myself the time to really think about what I’m reading rather than just plowing through to get to the end of the book.

  26. Rebecca says:

    Thanks for all the wonderful suggestions. I’ve got a great list going.

    Aerin, I loved The Bean Trees by Kingsolver. She does do a nice job with memorable characters. I have Poisonwood Bible in my bookshelf but haven’t read it yet. It’s on my list!

    You mentioned using the web to keep track of your books. I have been using Librarything since last fall. I believe the first 200 books are free so you can try it out. I went ahead and paid the lifetime membership fee when my books started to add up. I keep my library private. It’s just a way for me to remember what I’ve read. I love being able to make a few notes, and use tags to categorize my books. Love it! It does make me feel good to see all the books I’ve read. No, this is not a paid advertisement but it is a terrific site.

    Elaine, I feel like we must be kindred spirits. Taking care of an ill family member is truly the errand of angels. It’s wonderful that you were able to be there for your mom. You mentioned reading while you wait in lines. I always keep a book in my purse and I find that it makes me a much nicer person. I’m no longer feeling testy, giving people the stink-eye for holding me up when I have to wait somewhere. I’m now see long lines as a lovely excuse to pull my book out for a few minutes! Nothing will turn my frown upside down faster!

    Keep on reading all ye bookish sisters!

  1. July 28, 2010

    […] populations that did not have their own voices in art and literature. As mentioned in this exponent post – some populations are overlooked by publishing in favor of majority […]

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