Monday, March 4, 2013

The Life Stages of a Reader

(Confession time: If you've read Novel Matters a very long time, the post you are about to read may look vaguely familiar. This little blogger forgot that today was her day to post, until some dear reminded her just minutes before she left for work. This is an early post, but it sparked a great discussion. Please join in again! And please forgive me.)

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.


Sharon K. Souza said...

Katy, this was a post worth re-reading. In its entirety it's a beautiful example of how Story builds to a fever pitch, then eases back down to a breathe-able level. And it's a perfect representation of the cycles of our lives. I'm so glad you posted this again.

Patti Hill said...

Uh, Katy, I KNOW I've read every post on Novel Matters, but I'm of an age where reading something again--even if it's brilliant--doesn't mean I'll remember reading it. I'm blessed afresh. For me, now, I want magic, wonder, something to think about besides sequestration. Thanks for bringing this back. What a gift!

Megan Sayer said...

I agree, this was beautiful and timely. I vaguely remember reading it the first time around - back when my youngest was still in nappies (and possibly my second-youngest as well) and being comforted by the idea that my reading season (or lack thereof) WAS just a season, and that things would change, whether I could see it or not. And now look, my youngest is well out of nappies and into school, and the reading season is changing, just as you say. It's a really nice feeling, and good to remember and mark that change. Although I did read The Kite Runner during the nappy phase :)

And one other thing...ummm...err...I have a distinct memory of you putting on Facebook back in January how you'd added all the dates and deadlines of everything, including blog posts, into your diary for the entire year. With reminders. I was a bit in awe. Does this mean I now need to relieve you of your "Most Organised Person Of The Year" crown? I'm so sorry.

Reading this post again was worth it though :)

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I love this post, Katy. So glad for you reposting it.

A lot of my reading time (45 minutes to an hour a day) is spent reading to my kids. How enriching! Especially when I read Kate DiCamillo to them. Oh my heart! I am so glad to be in THIS stage of reading with my kids.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Books that cause a spiritual or intellectual awakening or deepening matter so much to me. Most of the time - not TOO deep, for I have to deal with real life at the same time.
Reading fiction by C.S. Lewis made me angry. Angry because I did not stumble on the books until I was an adult. You see, I read, and read well at an early age; I mean, I even read King James well at an early age - but the adults around me did not know to place something substantial in my hands. Thus, I had read 39 Grace Livingston Hill books by the end of my fourth grade summer and found myself looking in the adult section of the library by 7th grade - Yes, the "adult books," section.
Laura Ingals Wilder's Little House books mattered to me. I learned a lot about pioneer spirit and survival and, believe it or not, have applied lots of the knowledge to my every day life. C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy really hit the spot and I re-read those three books every two years or so. Pride and Prejudice is a regular bedside companion. I favor re-reads over page turners so that I actually DO fall asleep at night. The reason Jane Austen's books are so important to me is because her characters do so much and reveal so much character (or lack thereof) in such a narrow, cramped corridor of social mores. Surely, if Elizabeth Bennet could survive and thrive in such a suffocating environment AND continue to love and respect flawed family members - can I do less with all my freedoms?

Jennifer Major said...

I read "The Dove" by Robin Lee Graham in high school and went insane for adventure biographies for decades. To know that these people had aimed so high they'd either succeed or die? Wow, that nudged little ol' wallflower me along.
Yes, wall flower,I know, shocked aren't you?
"The Hiding Place" by Corrie ten Boom challenged my faith like nothing else. That was 'do or die' Christianity.
But like CHerry, I read old favourites at night, because I like sleep.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Jennifer, a few years ago my husband, daughter Mindy and I were in Amsterdam on our way to South Africa. We took the train to Harleem, and managed to find the Ten Boom house/museum. So I've had the incredible privilege of standing in the hiding place!! And hearing the stories from the tour guide was simply amazing. We held the Ten Boom family Bible, old, old, old, and speaking of old, their house is, if I remember correctly, 500 years old. It was an amazing experience.

Kathleen Popa said...

Jennifer, Dove birthed the hidden (still hidden) adventurer in me. I LOVED that book! And The Hiding Place made me what I am - and hopefully not hidden - today.

Cherry, you read good books.

Susie, I love children's books, and loved reading to my kids. You are in a wonderful stage.

Megan, I would never claim to be the most organized person of the year or any time. All calendars, lists and reminders are signs of a lifelong struggle. Without them, I'd only be worse.

Dina Sleiman said...

When I first started writing, I tried to be deep. Now I give a lot of thought to the fun and the "magic." I might be working on a YA series next. If so, I'll really be focusing on the adventure too. So far no cowboys, but I've had knights and sea captains, and perhaps some thieves and pirates coming soon.

Josey Bozzo said...

Gosh, unfortunately as much as I loved to read when I was younger, regretfully I did not spend as much time reading as I should. Nancy Drew was the first series of big chapter books I remember reading. In high school, I loved english class and all the reading we did. Bradbury, Shakespere, yes even Chaucer. Got an A on my Hamlet essay test! WooHoo, still celebrate that one.
Then came the years of no reading. So sad, and again one of my lifes regrets.
Early marriage years, I read alot of romance, to the point of them becoming too predictable.
Now, my book choices range from "The One and Only Ivan" (I work in a school library) to "The School of Essential Ingredients" and everything in between, including at least one classic a year.Fiction and non-fiction, children or adult. I read multiple books at one time just to get it all in.
But yes, I agree that there has been a progression in my reading. And looking back I can see the reasons for each season of reading in my life.

Josey Bozzo said...

oh, and almost forgot the most important season of reading....
reading to my children.
Dr. Seuss, Disney story books, then the Little House Books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Wizard of Oz.

Jennifer Major said...

Sharon-WHOA!! How cool and humbling, and wow, just WOW.
Kathleen-Did you read "Home is the Sailor"? It chronicles when he and Patti moved to Montana, (Idaho?) anyway, he basically fell apart. He really struggled with who he was and what he was going to do with himself after circumnavigating the world. He was just a kid and already done the whole Magellan thing. A fascinating read.