Friday, May 16, 2014

Life in Books: The First Twenty Years

I've gone through an interesting progression of literary cravings.  I don't want to beat the books=mind food metaphor to death and beyond, but I think it's apt.

When I was little, I pretty much only read Laura Ingalls Wilder or the Thoroughbred series (do you know how hard it is to properly spell "thoroughbred"?  There are so many silent letters in that word...).  My wee mind thought that those were "real" books and everything else was "fake."  I started reading classic picture books when I was in library school.  Truth.

Then I found Nancy Drew and read those obsessively, and oh, lots of other things.  Black Beauty, which I truly loathed but hey, it was a horse book, and I had horses on the brain, so I read it anyway, and felt awful afterward.  It was like some sort of weird bibliomasochism.  I had a massive Sharon Creech phase in 6th grade thanks to my awesome English teacher, Mrs. Major, and I'm pretty sure my copy of Shabanu by Susanne Fisher Staples looks like it's been mauled by a wombat.

But classics?  Oh, no, no.  We had to read "kid's classics" like Johnny Tremain and Across Five Aprils and those suckers made me feel a deep and abiding hatred for the children's historical novel.  Literally the only thing I remember about Johnny Tremain was that he spilled molten silver on his hand and fused his thumb to his palm.  This prompted us (my classmates and I) to tape our fingers to our palms and attempt to do things.  It wasn't very fun and we gave up after about five minutes.

In seventh grade, when that same English teacher (I went to a private school and we often had the same teacher for the same subject as we went through school) announced that we would be reading Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, I practically pitched a fit.  Actually, my whole class (okay, so there were three of us.  Remember: private school.  Sheltered kids.) begged her to choose something else instead.  We didn't want to read Jane Austen.  We wanted to keep reading Walter Dean Myers and Phillip Pullman and Monica Furlong's Wise Child series (she did all of those as read alouds, by the way.  Mrs. Major has a marvelous voice).  Jane Austen was for old people and it was boring and I wanted to stomp my foot.

I stomped my feet a lot as a teenager.  That was a large source of my mother's grief.

Reluctantly, I took this little book--a Bantam copy of Pride and Prejudice with a deep green cover and a pretty lady on the front--home with me.  I figured I should read and just get it over with--like ripping off a band-aid.  Suddenly, I was on chapter 10.  And I simply couldn't stop reading.  I read that book in three days.

Okay, so there was a lot about it I didn't understand, and it was difficult to adjust to the way people spoke and addressed each other, but Austen's prose grabbed me and dragged me in and didn't let me go.  She still holds me captive.  This was a society unlike anything I'd read about before.  Like I said, my life was sheltered.  I believed in marrying for love.  I never thought about marrying because I was an "old maid" or because I was "plain" or because I was poor and we would lose our house to entailment (oh, the joys English writers had with the legal system!  Thanks to entailment, we have many great works of literature!).  I believed in true love and inner beauty and being poor and happy.

The Bennets weren't indigent.  They weren't living in a hovel.  But every word, every gesture, every bit of lace trimming affected their standing in the world and, by extension, their futures.  This was something I'd never contemplated before.

In addition to my introduction to Regency society, I found joy in humor, wit, sarcasm, and satire.  Like the teen who felt accepted by his peers at tonight's Doctor Who Live Clue that I hosted at the library, I wanted to shout, "I have found my people!"

Pride and Prejudice also marks the first book with a love story that I actually cared about.  I wanted that story for myself.  I started to think that maybe not all love stories were sappy and stupid.  And then I couldn't stop reading classic novels.

My teacher recommended Jane Eyre to me next, and while it would take me years to figure out the feminism of that book, the general story burrowed into my reading soul and lodged itself there, right next to Pride and Prejudice.  I was off and running in the world of classic literature.  I gorged myself on the Brontës and Austen, but I avoided Dickens because I thought he was "too boring."  Ha!  How wrong I was.  I'm ashamed to admit that I developed literary snobbery.  Modern books were not good enough.  Science fiction and fantasy were "trashy."  I'd rather read Rebecca Du Maurier and Wilkie Collins compulsively than touch Ray Bradbury with a ten-foot-pole.

Then I hit college.  To my eternal joy, my first literary seminar was on romantic comedy.  We read Much Ado About Nothing, Pride and Prejudice, A Room With A View, and The Importance of Being Ernest.  I reveled in this class.  Do you know how hilarious Much Ado is?  But that seminar caused a subtle shift in me as well.  I realized that there was so much out there for me to read, and who was I to pass judgement on an entire subset of literature when I'd never read any of it?

When I was in college, I commuted.  I drove about 40 minutes to a Park and Ride, and then rode a city bus to the university.  I had a lot of time on my hands every day.  I needed a Big Book.  I honestly don't know how I found him, but I found Alastair Reynolds and his Revelation Space series. I started with Chasm City, which, at the time, was chronologically the first book (that's how I roll), and I couldn't stop.  I read the whole Revelation Space series.  Jumping from Austen to space opera is a pretty big leap, but I couldn't imagine my life without sci-fi.  Then I grabbed Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle books, which were huge and full of so many Big Ideas and philosophical musings and mathematical proofs (!!!) that my mind started exploding.  In a good way.  I found Dan Simmons' Hyperion books (I didn't really like Endymion, so I haven't read those two) and Charlie Stross' Eschaton series and holy cow SPACE OPERA was my jam.  I still love it, of course, but now I read even more things.

Right now it's late as I write this, and I'm itching to get back to my book, The Count of Monte Cristo. Stephenson's Reamde is glaring at me balefully from my bookshelf, as is Great Expectations.  I'm getting there.  Actually, I've just gotten started.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting blog, Pamela - love the musings!

    ReplyDelete