It’s Alaska Book Week. And for the literary crowd it’s been pretty exciting. The internet is abuzz with Alaskan book talk. In the library I put together a display featuring books written by our local, Homer area authors and next week we’ll be hosting a reading of twelve of those authors, each reading for a few minutes from a piece of their own work. An Alaskan, Debby Dahl Edwardson was even named as a finalist for the National Book Award this week for her Young Adult book My Name is Not Easy.
Tonight at the college there will be a panel and public discussion in which Nancy Lord, Tom Kizzia, Rich Chiappone, Miranda Weiss and Erin Hollowell will discuss the books that influenced their lives and their writing. So besides being in awe of the fact that I live in the same town as all of these great authors, I’ve been asking myself that same question this week. What books influenced my life?
Nancy Lord wrote an essay called On Rereading Siddhartha where she reflects on the impact the book Siddhartha had on her as a young teenager. Over the past couple of days Miranda Weiss has posted the question “What books made you?” on her Facebook page. We’ve got Anne of Green Gables and the Little House books. People mentioned Shakespeare and Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe. A lot of the classics were listed as well as a few contemporary wonders like one of my own favorites, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barabara Kingsolver. I’ll be interested to see what others have to say tonight at the panel discussion and I plan on taking notes, mining the conversation for reading ideas.
My own reading history is one that is a bit embarrassing to admit. While Nancy Lord may have been ready for Siddhartha at age thirteen, I was not. I was consumed with worry about boys and my hair at age thirteen. And while many children were at home reading the Little House books, I was watching it on television, along with other shows like Three’s Company and Welcome Back, Kotter. I remember owning one book that I treasured, Heidi by Johanna Spyri, but I don’t actually remember reading it. I did love the movie though.
I was encouraged to read the Bible as a child. I would get these little pamphlets from church that would have a mapped out plan for reading the entire Bible in one year. Every night I would read a certain number of verses and then mark them off on the chart. As far as I’m concerned there is no better way to make a child want to go to sleep than to have them read Bible verses before bed. I remember absolutely nothing of significance in all of that Bible reading. No epiphanies, no moments of enlightenment. I just remember trying like heck not to fall asleep.
In middle school someone was passing around Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume. I may have read that one, I don’t fully remember. I at least read the part about periods. I learned more about menstruation from Judy Blume than I did from anywhere else.
In a high school English class we were assigned The Great Gatsby. I did not read it all the way through, and I did not care. I still managed to get an A in the class somehow, probably because although I was late to develop an appreciation for fine literature I was well ahead of the game when it came to bullshitting.
It wasn’t until about my senior year in high school that I came across a book that changed it all for me. I don’t recall its title, but the author was Danielle Steele. Oh yes, it got my attention. It had glamor. It had conflict. It had SEX! Aside from a few picture books as a young child, it was the first book I remember reading from cover to cover.
At the library I sometimes hear people complaining about the “trash” that kids read these days. The other day I heard a father say of his son, “If it doesn’t have a dragon or a vampire, my kid won’t read it.”
I wanted to say, “At least he’s reading!”
Assuming I live a long time, and I’ve got pretty good genetics on my side, I will have time to read plenty of good books, some of them, thankfully, more than once. I can forgive myself for being a very late bloomer when it comes to literature. The good news is that it happened. I learned to love really good books. It happened at the University of Montana where I was exposed to authors that wrote about the very surroundings in which I found myself. William Kittredge, Rick Bass, Richard Hugo, John Maclean. They wrote about the West, which was familiar, but they made me see it in a new way. They somehow validated my rural upbringing.
The biggest thing though, was that I was ready. I was finally ready to read.