Thursday, May 26, 2005

A Question From the Lizard Queen, and Book-hunger

The Lizard Queen posed this question a few days back:

What books that you read as a kid changed your life such that you
wouldn't be *you* today if it weren't for those books and, in fact, you can
still read them today and still feel what you felt back then and maybe more

For me, the most important book here is Little Women. My Easter basket when I was in second grade included several children's abridged books, one of which was Little Women. Although I'd been reading for a while and although I'd enjoyed being read to before that, Little Women was the first book I fell in love with. I read my children's abridged copy over and over again, then got an unabridged copy and read that again and again. Whenever I've winnowed my collection of books, a copy of Little Women has always made the cut. I've not read it much since adulthood, but when I have, it's been with pleasure.

Alcott had me with the first scene. Even the first sentence: Jo grousing about Christmas not being Christmas without any presents. A complaining girl. And, as we see later in that scene, a girl who's not comfortable with all the frills and frippery that society wants to force on girls. A nonconformist, then, and a girl who writes and acts in plays. A girl with spirit. A girl whose family accepts her, odd though she may seem to some. What girl wouldn't like to be Jo, hidden away in her attic, writing on an overturned pan for a desk while a pet rat watches? Especially when there's a loving family downstairs?

Little Women showed me that it was normal for girls to have ambitions, and that imperfect girls could still be the heroines of their stories. It also showed me a world in which people think about right and wrong, rather than just assuming that whatever the majority around them think is good is so. My affection for Little Women led me to read whatever biographical material about Alcott I could, and that led me to read more about or by other of the New Englanders around her, such as Thoreau. It contributed to my affection for 19th century literature. Most important, though, is that, because of the simple fact of this being the first book I fell in love with, it cemented by love of books and reading.

Another book that changed my life--that helped me become me--was an old high school English literature book. I don't know the name, or how it came to be around my home. It had a picture of waves breaking on the cover, and I think it was published in the 1960s; I once saw a copy in a flea market and recognized it immediately and with pleasure, although I avoided the temptation to buy it. I used to play with this book before I really read it. I would look at all the many pictures of English monarchs and writers through the ages. I began to read a bit here and there, whether I understood much of it or not; I remember being much struck by Frank O'Conner's story "Christmas Morning" at age nine or ten, though I couldn't have told you squat about the Irish situation or what the Latin hymns the father sings meant. I ignored it for a couple of years and then in early adolescence, I went through and read pretty much all of it again.

I think I may owe my Anglophilia to this book and part of my love of English literature. Many writers that I later came to love I first encountered there--Ted Hughes, for example. It has colored my mind to some extent; for example, whenever I think of Somerset Maugham I see the drawing of him in that book.

Another book--or rather set of books--was an old set of red-backed books called, I believe, The Children's Hour. Each volume had different things. I loved the one with the biographical stories best. I pored over that many times. I learned a bit of history that way, and I think that's where I picked up my liking for biography.

If the Lizard Queen had asked about our favorite books as a child, I would answer differently, though Little Women would still head the list. Like many little girls, I LOVED Nancy Drew. I saved my money to go to the bookstore on our occasional trips to the mall in another town (I lived somewhere with no bookstore and no public library) and those carefully saved dollars usually went to buy a new Nancy Drew. Nancy is crap, I'm afraid, but I still get nostalgic when I see those covers--my era covers, not the ones before or, God help us, the awful ones since--and if they'd only make fabric printed with the scenes that used to be in the endcovers, I'd buy it. Another favorite was Harriet the Spy. The Little House on the Prairie books were read and reread (all except Farmer Boy, which I never bothered to buy.) There were a lot of other books I enjoyed, but this is a pretty good list of childhood--and by that I mean pre-adolescence, not pre-adult--favorites.

Really though, I read whatever I could find. Because of having no public library, having limited access to the school library even during the school year (yeah, they were wild about reading and learning at my school), and having no local bookstore to spend my few dollars, my childhood was marked by book-hunger. I could never find enough to read. I read women's magazines and the National Enquirer, just to have something to read as a child. (The way I learned about sex as a child was reading those "How to Talk to Your Children about Sex" articles in magazines like Woman's Day; because they assumed basic knowledge of the subject, I was left with some weird gaps in my knowledge until I decided to pursue the subject further after puberty hit.) Some of my teachers participated in the Weekly Reader book club program (children could order relatively inexpensive books from a selected list and have them delivered to the classroom), and that helped a lot, but it wasn't there all the time. I loved it when in my early adolescence my mother discovered garage sales; books were and are always the first thing I noticed in any garage sale.

Book-hunger as a child affects the person as an adult. When I married and moved in with my husband, I had access to a good public library for the first time in my life; I felt I was being given treasure for free every time I walked to the library desk with my armful of books. I was thirty or close to it before I began to feel less gluttonous in bookstores--less of a need to check every book I saw, afraid I might never have the opportunity to buy that book again, more comfortable in my ability to buy pretty much what I want (space limitations aside), and so on.


atheling2 said...

I'm an Anglophile too! I love Anne of Green Gables, Beautiful Joe, All of a Kind Family, King of the Wind - so many fond memories of books which shaped my childhood.

Still an avid reader, but less time now!

Suzanne said...

I don't think I've ever heard anyone say they've read--or even heard of--Beautiful Joe. It doesn't seem to be a popular book, although I liked it very much.

atheling2 said...

So you read it too! I didn't think many people read it but once I was in a bookstore and this lady came up to the counter and asked if she could order it.

Maybe it falls under "cult" status!