For the love of books

bookshelf

“A room without books is like a body without a soul.”  – Cicero

I think I’ve read more books in the last 10 months than I have in the last three or four years. I suppose that’s what being on a part-sabbatical while working from home in the country does for you – it’s given me a chance to get a library card again for the first time in years, to hungrily devour books long on my “to read” list and revisit favorites from my youth. It’s made me choose reading over TV and the social media, led me to staying up late just to finish one more chapter (or the end of a book), and it’s reaffirmed that reading is one of the things that brings me the most joy in life.

In honor of National Reading Month, I wanted to acknowledge some of the books, characters, and reading moments that have stuck with me through life, out of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve completed.

  • Little House in the Big WoodsThe Book of Goodnight Stories: a wonderful illustrated book of fairy tales and fables, broken up to last an entire year. It was one of the first books my mom read to me. I still have it, and look forward to reading it to my children someday.
  • The Long Winter: I think this was the first Little House book I ever read. My mom got it for me at a library booksale, a weathered and creased version, with the original Garth Williams illustrations. It got me hooked on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s story, and I have since read all of her books in the series many times over (including now!). Laura was probably one of my first literary heroines. The Long Winter and the books rounding out the series are my favorites: Cap Garland! Town revivals! Almanzo’s Morgan horses!
  • Kindertransport and Clara’s Story: the first two books that I built a collection around of Holocaust stories, which I was fascinated by for years, especially after a trip to Germany at age 12.
  • Jane Austen: all of it. Read my post on her birthday here, and my own life lessons from her books here.
  • An Old-Fashioned Girl: my favorite Louisa May Alcott novel (yes, even over Little Women!). A sweet, good heroine, complete with a love story and a family’s plummet from rich to poor. Also, the introduction of the velocipede. I read it multiple times. Read my post on another one of Alcott’s books, a little-known “thriller.”
  • The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn: the book that sent me down the rabbit hole of the Tudor dynasty and the fascinating lives of Henry VIII’s court. Mostly historical fiction, but I’ve been diving into the non-fiction, too. Alison Weir does both well, and Philippa Gregory is always good for a scandal.
  • The Mitford books: I found this sweet series about a small-town pastor and his friends by Jan Karon quite by accident, but was absolutely taken by it. Less about believing in God, and more about believing in the beauty of friends, family, and love, these books are good for the soul.
  • Shakespeare: I read the requisite plays in high school, and some of his sonnets. But after taking a class in college and reading more of his work (Titus Andronicus, anyone?), I became more devoted. Favorites: Much Ado About Nothing, Richard III.
  • The Bregdan Chronicles: also originally known as The Richmond Chronicles (and the version I own), this historical romantic fiction series based before and during the Civil War is mostly out of print now, but the author is coming out with a new book.
  • Maniac Magee: a youth book I read a couple of times in elementary school about a young orphan boy on the run who makes an imprint in a racially divided town. There’s a kid called Mars Bar in it, and a lot of cake making. And running.
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (and its sister books): Rebecca Wells hit straight to my heart with these books about four Louisiana women growing up and raising their families together. Need I say more? The movie doesn’t do justice to the book.
  • Anne of Green Gables: I would be remiss to leave this series off the list. I read through these books so many times they are like a comfortable blanket. My favorites were always Anne of the Island and Rilla of Ingleside. I’m still looking for my own Gilbert Blythe.

I could go on forever. There are so many books and authors that I love, but this is just a little glimpse at what’s impacted me the most. You can also read my post on an ode to the books of our youth, with some contributions from friends.

How have books and reading impacted your life? What are some of your favorite books that have stuck with you over the years?

Six Life Lessons from Jane Austen

I’ve loved Jane Austen’s works since I first received “Emma” as a Christmas gift more than 20 years ago. But I only recently began reading essays and books on why we love her stories so much 200 years later, and what they mean to us on a personal level, beyond the basic lit class critiques.

I just finished reading “A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter” by William Deresiewicz. The author begins the book by explaining how when he began graduate school, he had never even glanced at one of Austen’s novels because he felt above them, and above her style. But when he had to read “Emma” in one professor’s class on 19th century English literature, his view of Austen, and himself, started to change.

Deresiewicz reads and rereads all six of Austen’s novels over the course of a few years of graduate school and even incudes a chapter in his dissertation. But even more important than learning to like Jane Austen and all of her heroines, he learned more about life, love, and literature than he ever imagined.

Although I thought the author could be a bit rambling and repetitive, each of the six core lessons he pulled from Austen’s works resonated with me, and I found they applied in my own life. They are as follows:

“Emma”

Many think the plot of one of Austen’s most popular novels, frequently translated into film, is lacking. But the author latches on to Austen’s ultimate goal to get people to pay attention to the little stories and happenings of the people in our lives, no matter how small and ordinary they may be.

Deresiewicz says, “She understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels.” Instead of just focusing on the big milestones and events and drama, Austen encourages us to remember the small stuff and to talk about it, perhaps again and again, if that is what brings us closer to our community.

“To pay attention to ‘minute particulars’ is to notice your life as it passes, before it passes,” says the author, and of Emma, her father, and their best friends. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always valued the little things like snuggling on the couch with coffee and my dogs, frequent chats by phone with my parents, or hearing the “minute particulars” of small town life from my family in Louisiana.

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Happy birthday, Jane Austen

Circa 20 years ago, I received my first Jane Austen book, a copy of Emma, a Christmas gift from an aunt who knew of my passion for reading. At the time, even though I was already reading classics and other advancing literature, I thought perhaps it might be a little above my head. But I only let the book sit for about a year on my shelf before I couldn’t wait any longer, and promptly devoured it. I was hooked.

Next, I read Sense & Sensibility and then Pride & Prejudice. I followed that with Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, and finally, Persuasion. I have loved Jane Austen before I had heard of Colin Firth, or before Keira Knightley became a star. I’ll admit something — I’ve never even seen the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice, but I’ve read the book at least five times.

People always tout P&P as their favorite Austen novel, and for many, it is king among classic literature. But like many of the essayists in Why We Read Jane Austen, I agree that choosing your favorite Austen novel is akin to picking a favorite child, or for me, a favorite dog. It’s nearly impossible. If I’m forced, it would be P&P, but from there, there is a close tie between Mansfield Park and Emma.

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A whole new look at Louisa May Alcott

“…I often feel as if I’d gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom.”

So states the fair Rosamond in desperation, in the opening line of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase. One of many manuscripts the author, best known for Little Women, wrote to help pay her family’s bills in the mid-1800s, the novel was considered so “sensational” it was not published until 1995.

A thriller from the writer who brought us the Marches, a semi-autobiographical classic that then led to follow-up novels in Little Men and Jo’s Boys? The same writer who penned heartwarming coming of age stories like An Old Fashioned Girl and Eight Cousins?

Yes! When I picked up this book at the library, I wasn’t sure what to expect, even though I’ve always loved Alcott. “Sensational” and “thriller” aren’t exactly adjectives that come to mind when I think of her writing, and as I read the book, I realized they also meant very different things in the 19th century than they do now.

The basic premise is a young girl trapped under her grandfather’s care on an island off of England. When one of her grandfather’s friends and pupil shows up one stormy night, Rosamond is enchanted by this supposed knight who promises to show her the freedom and adventures she desires, and take her away on his yacht. But little does she know that this man has a dark past, and it will rear up to cut her happiness short, leading to a chase around Europe as she searches for protection and friends, and he tries to win her back, through a mix of passion and devious pursuit.

Every time I thought things were about to be okay again, Alcott surprised me with another twist, so I couldn’t put the book down, and it took until the very end (spoiler alert: no happy ending here!) for the story to wrap up.

Now that I’ve read this, I’m interested in reading some of Alcott’s other works in this genre. It actually is fitting since when she first began writing stories for her and her sisters to perform, and later to sell, they were full of pirates and deceptive characters and dark romantic twists.

Has anyone else read A Long Fatal Love Chase? Are there other authors you like that have lesser-known works in a different genre that you liked or didn’t?

Next on my reading list: Alison Weir’s Captive Queen, a story of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II.

An ode to the books of our youth

I’m one of those people that can never have enough books. I buy a new one or two or three every couple of months to add to my collection, even though I probably have  20 to 30 still unread. It’s like I’m afraid I’ll wake up one day and suddenly have nothing new to read. Highly unlikely, but I’m sure other book lovers know this feeling all too well.

When packing up my apartment to leave DC, I sent about 15 boxes of books ahead in USPS flat rate packages. I was amazed at how much I had, even after trying to clean out a few. I ended up giving away or throwing out probably only a small stack, and it was even hard to gift the ones I had about Rose Wilder Lane’s childhood to my colleague for his daughter.

Little House books
Photo credit: lynn.gardner on Flickr

My collection varies from classics like The Crucible, Huckleberry Finn and The Grapes of Wrath, to all of Jane Austen’s novels, to historical fiction from WWII and the Civil War, to books on journalism and by journalists, to some guilty pleasures from Nicholas Sparks and Philippa Gregory.

But some of my most beloved books are the ones from my youth: the Anne of Green Gables series, a few from the Little House collection, three or four children’s books with great sentimental value. Their covers are worn and the bindings bent and stretched from multiple readings, some of them five times or more. There are dog-eared pages a plenty, and on the inside covers, my name scratched out and rewritten after my adoption went through in high school. I know them all nearly by heart, and years ago stopped saving them for the children I would have someday, but instead held onto them just for me.

Like some people keep their first music album or baseball jersey or Barbie doll, I treasure these books. They may be of little or no value to anyone else, but they are of immense value to me.

Photo credit: adwriter on Flickr
Photo credit: adwriter on Flickr

I spent hours, days, weeks, and months of my childhood reading. I was reading chapter books in kindergarten, ahead of my classmates, and devouring entire Book It! reading lists. I would fill my backpack with at least 10 new treasures at the library every couple of weeks, and blow through half in a weekend. Instead of camp or summer sports, up until high school, I was probably inside reading. I learned of the joys of an Amazon wish list early on, and my parents fed that fire at birthdays and Christmas, quenching my thirst in between with trips to Barnes & Noble on Friday nights after dinner a couple of times a month. I’d walk the aisles writing down all the titles to add to my reading list, overwhelmed by the possibilities, yet always revisiting books I already knew and loved.

These days, I love new books as much as I did then. I blew through the Game of Thrones series in less than a year, and am halfway through Wolf Hall after a few days (admittedly, downloaded via Kindle to my iPad), eager to move on to Bring Up the Bodies. But nothing gives me more joy sometimes than revisiting old favorites. I could easily read Pride & Prejudice once a month, and I have a hankering to go back to my Little House books and relive Laura and Almanzo’s romance and Pa’s struggles through the long winter. In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin writes about how for a long time, she hid the fact that she still loved reading kid lit, until she discovered other adults just like her, and formed a couple of reading groups just for that purpose. She embraced the idea of reading what made her happy, and I do, too.

We love these books from our youth for so many reasons. They remind us of a rainy day inside, or our first meeting with a beloved character, or when we knew we had discovered our favorite author. They fulfilled the promise of young love, best friends, loving families, and adventures in unknown lands overcoming obstacles from man and beast. They gave us happy endings, surprise endings, and choose your own adventure endings. They remind us of simpler times before reality TV and video games, when we got hooked on a girl growing up on a prairie, a horse’s journey through life, or a brother and sister traveling through time together.

Memories may fade and TV shows may come and go, and we may read on tablets instead of in print, but these stories of our youth will never fade. They stand the test of time and are waiting for us to return to them again and again, and we are thrilled once more, just like the first time.

What are your favorite books and authors from your childhood? Here are some from friends and others online:

@smheffern: Misty of Chincoteague, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
@Tammy: Anything Beverly Cleary
@TWangDC: The Book Thief
@Courtside: books by Melina Marchetta, Cath Crowley, Megan Whalen Turner, Jaclyn Moriarty, John Marsden
@Katyray: A Wrinkle in Time
@brianneburrowes: Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, The Baby-Sitter’s Club
@washingtina: The Phantom Tollbooth
@arlusk: Shel Silverstein
@jesserker: Wayside School is Falling Down