Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Life Stages of a Reader

How have your reading preferences changed over your lifetime? Can you see some sort of growth or development in the choices you've made?

I once heard Leif Enger relate the inspiration for an integral part of his novel, Peace Like a River. His four-year-old son, John had wanted to know how the book was progressing. Enger answered it was going well, and was then confronted with a boy of four's next most logical question: "Got any cowboys in there yet?"

Thus the birth of Sunny Sundown, the epic poem woven throughout the novel.

It starts in childhood, doesn't it? This hope that the new book will be filled with beloved heroes and thrilling surprises. Think of the the time you were nestled on a soft lap, waiting to be both dazzled and comforted with a new - or familiar - mix of character, setting and plot. Do you remember the first thing you hoped for, in those earliest days?

Will there be magic?
For me, the burning question was, "Will you crack the lid of my little life wide open and show me that the things in my hands, that my hands themselves can do wondrous things?" And so the grownup person reads to us Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson.

Will there be cowboys? We get a little older, and we want more. We want to see ourselves in heroes larger than life, handsome, beautiful, brave, and always triumphant over the bad guys. Our parents read to us an illustrated copy of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. We take the book into bed with us, and we pour ourselves into its pages.

Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? Somewhere along the line we start wanting to travel - not to Neverland, but to real places we've never been. And for the trip, we want a best friend, someone so like us we wonder if the author's been talking to our grandparents. We pick up Lucy Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables and imagine we've found our kindred spirit.

Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? We enter high school and we think we know so much. We've learned life can be dark, that good doesn't always triumph, and if we're really intense, we feel ready to take on the important things. I was intense. My son is more balanced, so I'll have to tell you what I read at this stage: Franny and Zooey by J.D. Sallinger.

Can we just lighten up already? We grow up. We have kids of our own, and jobs, and bills. Life is heavy enough, thanks, so let's just read something light, shall we? We choose a story that will make us laugh, will move us to tears - but only the kind we cry at weddings, never funerals. Something like Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

Will there be nuance and complexity and importance? Okay, maybe the kids start school. We start to watch the news again. Sooner or later, we're up for a bit more oomph. We don't mind shedding tears over the genuinely tragic, we don't mind fleshing out the deeper issues. Maybe we read The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

Will there be wonderful settings, unforgettable characters? We catch on that settings don't have to be beautiful or even foreign to be compelling, and that characters can be heart-breakingly complex and still be our best friends. In fact, by their complexity they actually enter into our lives and change it forever. We read, perhaps, Leaving Ruin by Jeff Berryman.

Will there be cowboys? Can it be? Can a story take us on a steeplechase, and also plumb the depths of human experience? Can a novel be fun, and convicting and deeply affecting all at once? We read Enger's Peace Like a River and we know it can.

Will there be magic? Here we are again, back where we began. We know there is something more than the characters we meet, the places we travel, the issues we probe. It's hidden in all of these things, but we can't quite name it. We want so badly to touch that deeper world that shimmers in the air of our triumphs and heartaches. How can ink on a page, a story written by humans help us find it? It's a mystery, dear readers, but may I suggest, perhaps, River Rising by Athol Dickson?

I can tell I'm already in trouble here. The guys are going to gag at Anne of Green Gables and make cracks about canned testosterone. Some Jane Austin groupie is going to think I've implied Pride and Prejudice lacks nuance and complexity. (Not a bit of it.) Still others are going to tell me they progressed quite differently through the literary world. Oh please, do tell. We want to know the books that have mattered to you, and when, and why. We're writers, after all, and for us this is valuable information. We covet your thoughts.


Patti Hill said...

Oh, Katy, I have to jump in. I can remember my mom reading to me one time. And it was magical. Her husky smoker's voice was expressive and comforting as I fought off yet another round of tonsilitis. I think she read a book of fables.

Other than that, reading was school work. I read the stories and answered the questions at the end. And then, I listened to The Secret Garden and The Wizard of Oz read by my third-grade teacher, marveled at the mystery, longed to discover the magic word, but even this didn't open the world of reading to me.

Credit goes to Mrs. Green, my sixth-grade teacher who gave me a copy of Walter Farley's The Black Stallion. I could not, would not, put it down until I reached the end. And the hunt began for any and every book about horses.

Middle school was a wasteland of intellectual pursuit. High school exposed me to literature of varying degrees of interest. I had a boyfriend, after all.

I took a children's literature course in college. I read Charlotte's Web and The Cay and, you guessed it, The Chronicles of Narnia. When not reading about sociology or biology, I raided the children's literature library of the college.

Through early employment and marriage and motherhood, reading became my inbetween activity. I read Centennial by Michener when we moved to Colorado, followed by every other book by Michener. Then I read On the Beach and read every book by Nevil Shute.

True confession time: For a few years, I was a ravenous reader of Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, and Jack Higgins. These guys took me on wild adventures when diapers nearly buried me. Thanks, guys!

To abbreviate this tale, let me say that I didn't discover women's literature until my second go around in college as an English major. We read Annie Dillard and my heart stopped. I couldn't get into a book club soon enough!

I still like a varied offering of genres, especially well-written children's lit. My heart's desire is to write at least one story in that genre.

But having "tasted" the well-crafted story, I'm completely ruined. If I find myself revising a book while I'm reading, I toss it into my giveaway pile, because part of the magic is an invisible author.

I recently read Seabiscuit. I was 10-years-old again. THAT'S magic!

Steve G said...

Soooooo... where's the big kablooey? Did I miss it? Is it still coming?

I read several things as a kid. The first was the Bible stories - and no, I'm not trying to be hyper spiritual. I was involved in Christian Service Brigade (think Christian Boy Scouts) as a kid (yes, a boys only program with dads and men as leaders... yes it is still around As part of the achievement program we read Bible stories and would answer a few questions about them with a leader. And Sunday School was good at teaching me these stories (c.f. Wes King's Cover to Cover) too! Now you can get the Bible in an "audio book" format - how cool is that?

The second thing I read cover to cover was Reader's Digest. I remember always checking out the last story, the "Drama in Real Life" first.

The third thing was the scholastic school book orders. My kids get the occasional book from there, and I remember the ability to choose was as exciting as getting the actual book. The cover art was especially important at this time!

The forth thing was the Hardy Boys series. We really need more books for boys today.

I switched to a lot of non-fiction in my college and seminary days, My fiction reading became sporadic and not so choosy. When I start a book I hate not finishing it, good or bad. I mentioned before it took like 5 or 6 times starting the Hobbit before I finally got into it and finished it.

So now, I read all kinds. My world was opened up with watching Star Wars in 1977 - I still read of that larger universe. I read Clive Cussler's adventures. I enjoy the middle earth type fantasies of Feist, Eddings, and Lawhead; and McAffrey's dragons. My favorite characters are the heroes (bad guys need their butts kicked)... and I prefer happy endings.

word verification - coditt: A phrase popularized on the cooking show Captain Highliner Cooks (which was an advertising front for Cod Fishers of the World (CFW)). Almost every dish included fish with the accompaniment phrase, "You want to make this perfect? Just coditt!"

Lori Benton said...

My earliest reading passion? Stories about wolves. That would've been about the third or fourth grade. Back then I was writing my first novel (about a wolf pack, of course), and reading every novel and nonfiction account of them I could get my sticky hands on--most notably The Wolf by Dr. Michael Fox. I also read typical boy-targeted stories about dogs and wilderness adventures. I was not a girly girl! The only romances I'd touch in junior high and high school were those set on a frontier, with plenty of hardship and Plains Indians running amok. Perhaps early exposure to the Little House books can account for that bent. Somewhere in there I got a taste for fantasy with The Narnia Chronicles. Art College left little time for reading or writing, but not long after, in my early twenties, I discovered Christian fiction through the Thoene's early series, and then I read The Lord of the Rings, followed swiftly by Stephen Lawhead's Taliesin, and my love of all things historically Celtic was born. This love has influenced my writing ever since. Only in the last ten years have my reading interests broadened to include literary, women's, and contemporary-set fiction. My favorite read is still a historical, and if a hint of fantasy is thrown in (time travel, anyone?), that's cool too.

Kathleen Popa said...

I love it when people talk about the books they love.

Patti, I remember reading The Wizard of Oz when I was in fourth grade. I went around for months with a green marble in my pocket so I could look through and see the Emerald City.

My husband sent me An Old Captivity by Nevil Shute when we were dating (long distance). Very romantic.

Steve, Bonnie and I have discussed your comment about the big kablooey, and we have decided you would like us to blow up a cowboy. Did we get that right?

When I was in second grade, I consumed The Readers Digest. Oh! And I do so remember the delicious feeling of looking through the Scholastic catalog - and then when the books came! It was like Christmas. Maybe that's where my book addiction began.

Lori, the romances I read in Jr. High were all Gothics, always with a beautiful, terrified woman running away from a house on the cover. Romances were no good to me unless someone was trying to kill the girl.

See Steve? You and I are a lot alike.

Anonymous said...

The first person that read to me was my fourth grade teacher who read us Ramona the Pest, Charlotte’s Web, and Runaway Ralph. I’ve been reading the Ramona books to my eight-year-old daughter recently, and it’s been sweet to experience them with her.

Anne of Green Gables was my most memorable late childhood book. I read Grace Livingston Hill and Emile Loring as a young teen. Thankfully, there’s more substantive material for my thirteen-year-old (twin) daughters now. Later, I read Elswyth’s Thane’s Williamsburg series.

When the creative writing teacher in college asked us to bring in books similar to what we’d like to write to class, I took Testimony of Two Men by Taylor Caldwell and Not My Will by Francena H. Arnold.

When I was home with two babies and a two year old, I found older books soothing—particularly Frances Parkinson Keys who wrote historical fiction. Her southern historicals, where setting was a character, inspired me not only with their sense of place, but also revived my desire to write. I named my youngest daughter after one of her characters—Merry (Meredith) in the River Road and my personal e-mail address—Upper Magnolia—was the name of a plantation.

I’ve read The Mitford Series more times than I care to admit. They epitomize what I like best about books: an entrance into another world where the stories are engaging, but not troubling. I’m an oncology nurse in my professional life and my personal life often seems fraught with drama, so I like a change of pace in my entertainment. Rosamunde Pilcher is another author whose vivid story world draws me in no matter where I open to in her novels.

Redeeming Love was one of the first books that really changed me. I have tended toward women's commercial literary in my forties--Anne Tyler, Wendell Berry, Peace Like a River, Ursula Helgi’s Stones from the River blew me away last year. But I didn’t discover those books until I started my writing journey.

Fabulous topic! Books are one of my favorite subjects (in case you couldn’t tell).

Anonymous said...

I too read the typical stories of adolescents. Loved American Lit in high school - Red Badge of Courage, The Scarlet Letter, etc. Then in my 30s I spent several years reading nothing but English Literature. I was already a huge Dickens fan. Love Charles Dickens. But during that period I also read Thackery, Austen, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, all of the Brontes (The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte my favorite), Daniel Defoe and John Gallsworthy, who became another favorite of mine. I ever read Sir Walter Scott.

My husband and I are Jack London fans, and have visited his home - now a museum - several times.

But the truth is, I'm not as well read as my fellow authors here. They talk about authors who I (shamefully admit) haven't heard of. But it's helping me grow, and I love that.

Melinda, I too am a Rosamunde Pilcher fan.

I only wish I had time to read all the books I ever wanted to. That's one thing about the Millenium that excites me to no end. All that time!!

Bonnie Grove said...

OH, I confess I flopped all over the literary place growing up. I swooned with Judy Blume, I ate up girly books like "Please! Don't Go!", and sat agog flipping through Gone with the Wind (it had SWEAR words!). I accidentally read The Graduate in Jr. High. Which wouldn't have been a big deal, but I handed in a book report about it and the school called my Mom.

I read Jane Austin and had to have my older sister explain it to me.

I read Dickens and got depressed, then happy, then depressed again.

I read the Bronte sisters and thought I found my teen soul mates in that melodramatic crowd. Just everything I could get my hands on without regard to high brow or low.

I just read. Comic books, cereal boxes, books, letters from friends, poetry, whatever I could get my hands on.

But short fiction is my first passion as a reader. I adore it, devour it, seek it out, and hide away with it whenever possible.

What I love right now is a book that can take an old approach to a genre and make it fresh. Like Olive Ann Burns turning the memoir into something no one knew it could be with her book Cold Sassy Tree. Or the feel-at-the-speed-of-light master poetry of Barbara Hamby a la Ode to American English that makes you feel your whole life in just one and a half pages.

I love that which is written by the author fully alive.

Anonymous said...

I read all the time. My favorites from schools days have been short stories from every where. I started with English short stories,
crossed back over the seas with American short stories (from the Civil war, to the South West) and ended up with many volumes of short stories from around the world, Hawaii, Italy, Canada...all on my bookshelves at home! My favorites are the stories of Saki O'Henry and the more than human experiences of James Thurber. I love the subtle beginnings, the rapid rises and the sock it to you endings of short stories. More recently I have been reading longer novels by Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene

Anonymous said...

Ohh I love this topic!

I think the first chapter book I read was Charlotte's web, I cried.
I wasn't much of a reader in JH. In high school books were my release from real life. I read Gone With the Wind, Cold Sassy Tree, Dickens, and anything by Steven King.

After becoming a Christian I didn't have much time to read. Two you boys took most of my time. When the boys got a bit older and less needy, I started reading again. Reedeeming Love was the very first "Chrisitan" novel I read. It is still one of my faves. For awhile I only read "Christian" romance. Now I'm venturing into fantasy. And books on Church history.

Bonnie, my son reads while he eats breakfast(cereal boxes, books, anything with words on it he reads. I can't take him down the cereal isle he'll choose cereal, so he can read the box, not on taste) We get the Scholastic magazine each month. Both boys love to choose books from it. I do too.

Bonnie Grove said...

Anonymous: Some wonderful, rich reading going on there. I'm with you on the short fiction. I'm nearly done my copy of The Penguin Anthology of Canadian Short Stories. Old favs and new ones too.
Conrad is always interesting. He had an amazing ability to be both veiled and transparent. The Horror! The Horror!

Nichole: We are Scholastic book buyers too. We have two gaffers so we get the catalogs on a way too frequent basis! The kids are always excited to bring them home. Our son is a reader to the core. Our daughter loves books, but she prefers for me to read them to her so she can act them out. She's amazing.

It's true, what Katy said - stages of life affect what we're reading at any given time.

Anonymous said...

Okay, since this is a focus on literary fiction, and we're all appreciating the nuances of literary techniques, shall we congratulate our own Katy by using the technique of a chiasmus in listing magic, cowboys, etc.?

You're my hero, Katy!

Latayne C Scott

Anonymous said...

And our own Latayne for continuing to expand my vocabulary, my vocabulary to expand.

Martin Reaves said...

Well, now, this topic does get the juices flowing!

Everyone take a moment: Grab a nearby book, preferably a thick, ratty paperback. Bring that sucker within kissing range; now, riffle the pages and inhale nice and deep...yeah, that's the stuff ain't it?

So many wonders...How did I not get into more trouble than I did when my model of childhood was Ramona Quimby? Why was I forever losing things when I knew by osmosis how those elusive toys would be located by the illustrious Encyclopedia Brown?

The travels and wonders I experienced speeding alongside Stuart Little; running the fields with Pongo, Mrs pongo and Perdita...again, and again, and yet again. And trembling alongside The Cowardly Lion as Dorothy braved winged monkeys and the mysterious Yellow Winkies.

And there were cowboys, oh yes. Louis L'amour and the Sackett clan and their meaner cousins the Talons. Zane Grey and his Riders of the Purple Sage.

And then Whitley Streiber showed me The Wolfen and everything changed forever. From there it was merely a short dark stroll to Peter Straub's Ghost Story, possibly one of the scariest (and most literate) novels ever written; then Straub's nightmare vision of childhood and magic: Shadowland. And when I wasn't paying attention Ray Bradbury snuck up behind me and sent me reeling with Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes; he wished me into October Country and then horrified me with the smell of burning words in Farenheit 451.

Then the haunted hotels and cars and post-apocalyptic landscapes of Stephen King...and there were cowboys here too, to be sure: King's The Gunslinger and his marvelous 7-book quest for the Dark Tower and The Man in Black.

Anne Rice made me think living like a vampire might actually be worth trying--then Elizabeth Kostova showed me in The Historian how wrong I was. Clive Barker introduced me to creatures and worlds beyond explanation. Lawrence Block took me inside the head of Matthew Scudder and I watched him drink himself nearly to death and finally find sobriety but not happiness.

Larry McMurtry took me again through the Old West with Gus and Call in the absolutely gorgeous Lonesome Dove (the first time I finished a novel over 900 pages and wished it didn't have to end).

Then there was Christopher Moore, challenging me to look at my faith with a sense of humor in Lamb, the Gosepl According to Biff (I double-dog dare my more conservative friends to read that one all the way through without crossing yourself). Robert McCammon defined creepy nostalgia in Boy's Life. And then sweet, horrific nostalgia found new and glittering brilliance in Dan Simmon's Summer of Night; and in Mr Simmons's stunning The Hollow Man, I cried real tears as I watched the effect on a man as his true love finally succumbed to death miles away, and he felt--for the first time in years--the mind-touch they shared through a years-long telepathic bond abrubtly wink out...Mr Simmons accomplished this emotional wreckage on the reader within the first few pages of this wonderful novel, and it may be the finest opening I've ever read. But Dan Simmons makes a habit of this sort of thing.

I could go on, but I see some of you are beginning to nod. There are countles others, and they are my teachers every one. Most of them without a discernible style because--as Patti so astutely observed--part of the magic is an invisible author. I would amend that only to say that very nearly ALL of the magic lies in that inexplicable gift of invisibility. How to become invisible; how to cause the binding and pages to dissolve in the reader's hands; to mesmerize that reader with the true gift of literary hypnotism? Every writer above has done that for me, and has inspired me to go and do likewise.

Books, books, books, Beautiful, mystical, delicious books.

Anonymous said...

Mott, really, you never cease to amaze me. Nodding off? Hardly. Your descriptions are as appealing as the books themselves. Love hearing from you.

Kathleen Popa said...

This is just our dream come true, to find so many book lovers visiting our site. What passion! And what a lot of books to add to my list. Especially some of the children's books. I read to my kids way past the time when they could read for themselves. I love the children's section of the library.

Nichole, please can your son just come sit over here by me? Anyone who chooses a breakfast cereal for its literary value is definitely my kind of guy!

I read Charlotte's web in high school. And wept.

Melinda and Mott, I had forgotten Ramona Quimby. I LOVED Encyclopedia Brown! Do you remember Pippi Longstocking?

Sharon, after the list in your first paragraph, how can you say you're not well read? I think our passion for reading has led us all down different paths, and that can only enrich Novel Matters. There are so many books and so little time. It's going to take all of us to get the job done.

Bonnie: Oh, Cold Sassy Tree! I did so love that book. Was loaned it by my sister in law. Never gave it back.

"I love that which is written by the author fully alive." May I add that to my quote file?

Anonymous, I'm impressed by your list.

Latayne, thank you for the compliment. But you are my hero.

Sharon, I had to look up "chiasmus," too.

Mott, I love, love, love your list, and your memories. YESS!! There is nothing like the smell of old paper. The cheaper the better. Remember when libraries used to have that smell? In Saratoga CA, last I knew, there was a used bookstore that still had it. I could spend all day there. Someone should bottle the paper smell so we can dab it behind our ears. Give it a sexy name, like "Librarian."

By the way, I cherish the day my youngest picked up a Ray Bradbury book on his own and then came to me later to announce that Bradbury was a genius. He was about 12 or so when he did this. It was a proud, proud moment.

Remember the story in Dandelion Wine about Douglas Spaulding and the new tennis shoes? Oh, my.

By the way, anyone looking for a great book about writing - you just can't do better than Bradbury's Zen and the Art of Writing.

I adore all you guys. Please keep hanging out at Novel Matters. You make it so fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Mott just made me think of something I have totally forgoten about. In high school my bff and I challenged each other. We read both GOne with the Wind and Lonsone Dove @ the same time. Who ever was done first got a free dinner to the local eatery, paid for by the loser. I won! Had big juicy burger and fries, from best cook in Clare county.

Martin Reaves said...

Yes, Kathleen, the memory of that sacred, musty house of books is something we probably all can point to. For me, it was Acres of Books in Long Beach, CA, a place where the dust rag was anathema--high ceilings and impossibly long aisles disappearing into murky mystery. And everywhere, the shopworn fragrance of millions of words, thousands upon thousands of worlds to explore.

This idea of dark houses of books puts me in mind of one of my all time favorite reads (how did I miss it before? I suppose the question of faves at any given moment will yield different results deponding on your mood, the phases of the moon, and what you had for dinner). Has anyone visited the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Carlos Ruis Zafon's lyrical wonder: Shadow of the Wind? You owe it to yourselves to find and devour this gem.

Nichole: A reading of Lonesome Dove eliciting memories of that juicy burger. Now there's a whole other savory topic: What particuar book automatically dredges up a sense memory, be it taste, smell or touch? For me it is the Hit Man series by Lawrence Block. On the road and my obsession at the time was Dennys' chicken sandwich and seasoned fries. This is a reverse memory, in that a bite of those fries and that sandwich shoots me back to those looong lunches with Mr Block.

Makes me smile.

Kathleen Popa said...

Omigosh. Remember back a few comments when I said, "Someone should bottle the paper smell so we can dab it behind our ears. Give it a sexy name, like 'Librarian'?"