Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Childhood Reading History

I love to read books about how others came to love books and why they love to read. Today I picked up at the library Anna Quindlen's How Reading Changed My Life. It is part of the Library of Contemporary Thought which I had no idea even existed.

She tells of a childhood spent in a club chair in her living room, legs dangling over the arm, reading, reading, reading. Many writers spent their childhoods being told, "Get your nose out of that book." Or, "It is a beautiful day. Go outside and play." Or, "Stop reading, turn out the light, and go to sleep."

Not me. My second grade teacher told my mother that I needed to read more books for enjoyment. My childhood reading consisted of Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski, and a biography of Sun Yat-Sen. What I as a third grader had in common with a Chinese revolutionary remains a mystery.

I have no recollections of picture books or being read to. Of course that doesn't mean there were no picture books or that I wasn't read to. I just don't remember.

I do remember reading selections from my grandmother's Reader's Digest Condensed Books.  I recall two; Miracle at Carville by Betty Martin, a true story of a young woman diagnosed with leprosy (which scared me to death) and 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff. (Now that one stuck with me and I have an unabridged copy on my bookshelf.)

As I wandered aimlessly through my teens I stumbled onto the Nancy Drew mysteries of Carolyn Keene, Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier, and Nine Coaches Waiting and other romantic tales by Mary Stewart. I think I may have discovered Agatha Christie then but I am not sure. And I remember making a very odd choice for a teen: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair about the meat-packing industry written in 1906.

Only two books come to mind that I had to read for high school - A Tale of Two Cities and Gone with the Wind.

Where, oh where, were Charlotte's Web, Little Women, Wind in the Willows, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, Winnie-the-Pooh, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?

I am sure they were on the bookshelves of the school library but believe me I have no recollection of ever setting foot in that room. I even worked as a page for the public library my sophomore or junior year. What I remember about that time is that I was paid 50 cents an hour and I got fired because, I was told, "You spend too much time with the books."

What could that have meant?

Anyway, the point here is that my love of books and reading apparently didn't develop until much later. My mom, who was a librarian, even admitted that my childhood was definitely lacking in literary learning or yearning.  Not that there weren't books in the house. There were. I just didn't read them.

I have had to catch up and have read many of the books I missed. Well, OK, I never have read Jane Eyre and probably never will, but I can live with that. Perhaps as an adult I got more out of the books than I would have as a child.

I will tell you that there was one book that did change my life: Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck. I read in as a high school junior. It was the first non-fiction book I read (not counting my third grade acquaintance with Sun Yat-Sen) that wasn't a textbook.

I was fascinated that here was a man who took a road trip with his poodle around America and wrote about it. Really? You could tell the tale of your own adventures?

That book made me want to become a writer.

And so I did.

To be continued...


  1. Thank you for giving me this link, Belle, since you posted this well before I started reading your blog regularly (what other good things are hidden here...I need to explore...). You got me thinking about my own childhood reading, and I will probably steal your idea and write my own blog post about it. Perhaps from the angle of a"what books I missed in childhood," as I mentioned in my comment on your other post. My mom was an avid reader and I remember that she read to me until I could read myself, but I don't remember what she read. The Richard Scarry books come to mind as some of my first books. I remember reading The Black Stallion books, lots of Nancy Drew, the Little House books, the Anne of Green Gables series...oh, lots more. You've opened up some happy memories--thank you!

    1. Oh, dear, I forgot to write that I missed the Little House books as well! I still haven't read any of those or "Anne of Green Gables" (although I bought a lovely edition in a St. Augustine used book store on my last Grand Southern Literary Tour). And then there are Peter Pan, The Railway Children (British), Pollyana, Dr. Doolittle, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and many by Roald Dahl. My, my. I have a lot of catching up to do!