A personal history of reading
I grew up as the youngest child in a family that read. They read. I did not. I wanted to talk, to do, to make noise, to interact. They wanted to sit quietly and read. Finally, on one of the bi-weekly sojourns to the town library, I found B is for Betsy by Carolyn Haywood and everything changed. Betsy and her friends turned me from a reluctant reader to an avid reader. I can even picture where on the shelf the Betsy books were to be found, on the right hand side on one of the lower shelves.
It seems libraries have always played a big role in my life. Some of my earliest memories involve the public library: climbing the wide open staircase that led to an oasis of books, looking out through the huge picture window onto the Hudson River, and trying to find my mother in the endless rows of big, scary, black metal stacks of the adult section.
When I was eleven we moved away from the square, open modern library of the late 1960s and early 1970s to a town with a library housed in a smaller brick building dating from 1918, with alcoves and nooks to squirrel yourself away and hide in. I started downstairs in the children’s room, reading all the Black Stallion books by Walter Farley, a biographical series of historically important women, as well as most other books in their collection. At some point, I graduated to the upstairs, the adult section, where I discovered the gothic romances of Victoria Holt and Mary Stewart. Here I did research for school projects and met friends to study. The building was across the street from my middle school and just a short walk from home.
In high school, two English teachers had a lasting impact on my relationship with words. Miss Phauss introduced me to all kinds of literature, including the reading of plays. Here my love of realism in plays began with the works of Ibsen, Chekhov, and the American playwrights Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and my all-time favorite, Tennessee Williams. It was in her class that I was encouraged to interpret for myself what an author meant. I read before, but after Miss Phauss, I read with curiosity, insight and love.
The following year I had Mrs. Carr, a teacher as opposite Miss Phauss as they come. She firmly believed there was a right and wrong way to interpret every word an author had written. I believe I even dared to ask her if she had been with an author when he or she had written something and had an explanation been given? Somehow I managed to pass her class. I’m sure I was not her favorite student.
In college I majored in zoology but every semester I took a literature class as an excuse to read fiction. One of my biggest victories as an undergraduate was getting an A in a class devoted to the works of Eugene O’Neill. I was the only non-English major in the class. Another striking memory is reading Thornton Wilder’s Theophilus North while mating fruit flies for my master’s thesis. I would set up my pairs of flies, set a timer, read a couple of pages and then check for mating pairs. And repeat. For hours. It’s a really good book. But I can’t read it without thinking about my flies.
Reading is a joy and a pleasure and an escape when life gets too hard. Books provide memories of the good (my father’s character voices reading The Wind in the Willows when I was a child) and the bad (reading Bread Alone by Judith Ryan Hendricks while on bedrest during a difficult pregnancy). We have our old favorites that we turn to for comfort and our adventurous choices that we choose on a whim. Reading, books, words and libraries are important to me. And now writing. May I be worthy of those who have gone before me.