The topic this week is: Books with Sensory Reading Memories, which ties in well with something I was thinking about anyway. See, Monday is/was my birthday (writing in advance, publishing for Tuesday), so I was pondering books throughout my life. I feel like I've talked about most of these before, but it's been awhile.
The first book I remember reading is Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss. I'd sit in the little wooden rocking chair in our family's furnace room (I honestly have no idea why I was sitting in there, but that's what I remember) and read it to myself. It was, to be clear, a LARGE furnace room in which we stored camping equipment, hung laundry on wet days, and so on.
In first grade, my teacher had a two-shelf bookshelf that ran under the windows. I remember it being a mess, with books tossed in willy nilly by six year olds who hadn't yet learned how to sit books upright. My favorite book to borrow from her was called No Flying in the House. I'd read it over and over. It had a distinctive style of illustration that was common in books I read in my childhood. I came across a copy of it a few years ago and yeah, I have no idea why I was so obsessed with it. I do remember the character being told that if you could kiss your elbow, you were a fairy. How many times do you think I tried to kiss my elbow? (A lot.)
In third grade, our teacher read the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series to us, and I was hooked. That summer, my sister and I read The Silver Chair together on the chaise lounge in our backyard, a wooden contraption with classically seventies turquoise flowers on the pad. We'd do the dishes, then cozy up together in the sweet light of a summer evening. One night she'd read two chapters aloud to me, and the next I'd read one to her. It remains my favorite Narnia book.
Middle school was rough for me. At the beginning of sixth grade one of my long-term friends informed me I wasn't cool enough for her to continue being friends with, which gives you some sense of my place in the pecking order. (Last year, over 35 years later, she sent me a friend request on Facebook. I was initially tempted to reject it, but I figured I would never want to be judged now by the meanest things I did in my youth, so I accepted. She seems okay.) ANYWAY, I hated eating in the cafeteria so I would inhale my food then head to the library for the rest of lunchtime. I discovered the Dragonriders of Pern series, and would check out a new book almost every day. After lunch I had science, and the cool kids at my table gave me some grudging respect for showing up daily with a different book. Like, I was still a nerd, but I was really, really good at it.
In high school, my best friend and I spent one summer reading The Accidental Tourist together. I specifically remember being at the beach one time, laying next to each other on our beach towels (because man, did we sunbathe a lot in the 80s), taking turns reading chapters to each other, discussing as we went.
I spent a semester in Denmark in college, and it was definitely the best part of the entire college experience for me. I stayed at a "folk high school," which is sort of a community college and sort of a hippie commune. I was enamoured with the wide window sills and outward opening windows so typical of Europe, and I sat in mine while I read The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
. It was racy, and it was by a topical author, and the language was so beautiful I consciously slowed my reading down to make the book last longer.
My senior year in college, I took a course on Russian literature in translation. It was a freshman level course that wasn't required for anyone's major, and the professor did a lot to create engaging and non-traditional avenues for us to explore these Serious Works of Literature. (For A Hero for Our Time
, we were to reflect in any form BUT an essay, resulting in collages, a rubber band duel, and a puppet show, as I recall.) He told us that we were reading War and Peace
instead of Anna Karenina
this year because he was "tired of teaching a novel in which the heroine throws herself in front of a train and her lover just gets a toothache." We read W&P in chunks, and after each chunk we were required to write a 15 word summary. No more, no less. I remember house sitting for one of my bosses (I had a work study job in the library all four years), and curling up with a blanket on a cold Vermont winter night, focused first on the novel, then on finding just the right words to zero in on the most significant aspects of each section.
The River Why
will always have a special place in my heart, but my sensory memory from David James Duncan is when I first read The Brothers K
, his follow-up novel. I had graduated from college and was living at home with my parents for six months before going to Latvia to teach. There's a scene in which the mom freaks out and basically calls her son Satan, and when I read it, I started crying so hard I had to put the book down and collapse on my bed until I could pull myself together. For the record, my mom never called me Satan, but there was something about the juxtaposition of the person you love and trust so much losing herself in blind anger that really hit a nerve.
The books I remember most from my time in Latvia are the ones I studied from. Someone gave me a booklet of 1001 words in English, Russian, and Latvian. When I started learning a word, I put a pencil dot next to it, and when I'd mastered it in my everyday use, I'd go over the dot with a pen. A Latvian American acquaintance of my dad's had loaned me his copy of Teach Yourself Latvian
. It was a medium blue hardback, small, with his name and phone number inscribed on the inside cover. I see that there's a 2009 edition available now, but since this was 1993, I must have had the 1966 first edition. At first it was over my head, but when I returned to Latvia for a two year stint with Peace Corps, I was able to make better use of it. I also had a small but fat brown Latvian-English dictionary that got a lot of use.
|Since I can't find a picture of the dictionaries, here's a shot of us with our Latvian friends on Midsummer.|
Back in Oregon for my thirties, I got a teaching job in a small town and rented the top half of a cute older home. My family gave me a bike, and I would ride it on errands around town. One day I crashed and got road burn so bad that I had to go to urgent care and get gravel picked out of my arm. It hurt, and the bandage made the hot summer even worse. I lay on my bed with a box fan in the window, listening to The Hero and the Crown
on cassette--"Books on tape". I closed my eyes, and the heat of the room and the throbbing of my arm just made it easier to imagine myself in the desert of Damar.
I started reading Harry Potter in that apartment too, at the advice of my older niece, then in middle school. Many years later, when Deathly Hallows
came out, I borrowed a copy from my friend Kristi, who'd bought it on release day and plowed through it immediately, and took it on a trip with me. My family was up at the mountain for a few days, and my younger niece (then in college) was also reading it. We sat side by side on the porch, soaking in the views and reaching the end of an era together.
|This was staged. My dad told us to look like we were checking to see if they were the same.|
Sometime between book one and book seven, I got married, and a few years after that we went back to Latvia for another year. This time we were in the city, and I joined an English language library. It was small and idiosyncratic, and I ended up reading The Grapes of Wrath
for the first time, mostly because it was there and looked like it would take longer than a day. I was transfixed from the opening and kept saying to my husband, "No WONDER this guy is famous! I had no IDEA he wrote like this!"
One the same mountain porch where we'd read Harry Potter, I was reading to my kids six summers ago, on our first family trip after our kids came home to us. Their English was nearly non-existent, but they loved being read to anyway. I read them a childhood favorite, Blueberries for Sal
, with my name inscribed in my late mother's handwriting on the inside cover. The next day someone was putting nuts into a container and my son piped up, "Kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk!" and we both laughed with delight at his apropos literary quotation.
For a decade or more, my friend Victoria has been saying to me, "You've read Pillars of the Earth
, right?" and then being surprised and dismayed when I tell her no. A couple of years ago, when I was just getting the hang of borrowing audiobooks digitally from the library, I decided to finally rectify the situation. It is a heckuva big book, and I have a half hour commute, so I was listening to that puppy for months. I still am reminded of the story by points along the route. "This freeway exit is where Tom and Ellen first met."
This morning, I was the first person in my household up. I made myself a cup of coffee, and because the bowls were all dirty, poured some cereal into a big blue mug, topping it with raspberries and blueberries, I sat on the rocker on our back deck in the morning sun, finishing up Little and Lion
Tomorrow I will be 49. I could have chosen a dozen different books to trace my reading life, which is to say, my life. I figure I am over halfway through my time here, and I will miss so many books by the end, but at least I know I will never run out of great books to read.