Kurt Vonnegut died yesterday. I remember reading him for the first time in high school. Slaughterhouse Five was required reading. I loved it. Also required that year was George Orwell’s 1984. Heavy stuff for teenagers, but, I believe, good in that they made us all think (well, at least it made me think).
I’ve been reading and thinking about what I’m reading or what I’ve read my whole life. And no, my love of reading is not why I became a librarian. My mom says I started reading at about age 2. One of her favorite pictures of me is from around that time. I have pigtails in and am reading with a frown on my face and a pair of Mr. Potato-head glasses perched on my nose. I was a very serious reader. Still am. I still frown when I read. I always have and probably always will. It’s unconscious, and try as I might, I can’t not frown when I read (I’ve tried, I lose my place on the page). I also get very absorbed in what I’m reading…to the point that I don’t hear anything around me. I swear I’m not intentionally ignoring you, I’m just deep into my book.
My parents, to their credit, gave me free reign over the bookshelves in the house. Nothing was off limits. And they made themselves available to discuss things I read should I want or need to talk about it. This was especially helpful when I read one of the books from my dad’s collection on the Vietnam War, or a book on feminism or socialism or democracy. Even a Tom Clancy novel. Our discussions were often an exchange of ideas or debates, heady stuff for a child. But it encouraged me to think about what I was reading and what it meant to me. They never told me that my ideas were wrong, I just had to have a solid foundation for them so I could defend them (“just because” was never a valid reason in our house). They just wanted me to think for myself, one of the best gifts they’ve ever given me.
This exchange of ideas and books is still going on today with my parents. Packages are often sent with books in them and arrive that way too. You can tell the books from my parents because they usually clip out a book review or two and place them in the book when they give it away. They’ll even send along a review after the fact so it can be put in the book. I do the same thing. Our phone conversations almost always involve a discussion or a comment about a book we recently read or are reading or an interesting book review we saw. Since we all have vastly different tastes in literature, this exchange has added considerable breadth to my reading lists. Breadth I welcome, it balances out the depth I have in certain genres and languages.
When people ask me my favorite author, I can never pick just one. I have many. It depends on my mood, my “goal” in reading the book (escape? thought? research?), what I’ve read recently, genre, topic, etc. The things I read originate from all around the world and are in multiple languages and cover everything from “chick lit” to serious non-fiction. I have authors I love to go back to, again and again, like Jorge Luis Borges or Ray Bradbury. I have authors who’s latest work I snap up as soon as I can like Nick Earls, or Jeanette Winterson, or Isabel Allende (see? never can list just one!). But this list is never constant, it changes from week to week, month to month, year to year. And like all readers, I have lists of authors I’d rather not read again. I never say “no” to an author until after I’ve read more than one work by them. At this point, I can say with confidence that I am not a fan of the following: Charles Dickens (after 5 works), William Faulkner (after 3 1/2 works, couldn’t make it through the 4th work) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read everything he’s done, many more than once, particularly tortuous because we read him a LOT in my classes for Spanish lit degrees). Fortunately, the list of authors I’m not fond of is short, and doesn’t change very often.
Today, April 12th, is Drop Everything and Read Day, or Beverly Cleary’s birthday. Ramona Quimby was just one of my favorite characters as a kid. I still have my Beverly Cleary books in a box with all my other favorite authors from my childhood: Zilpha Keatly Snyder, Judy Blume, Cynthia Voigt, and lots and lots of other joys. Other authors I read as a child, for example, Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Madeleine L’Engle, J.R. Tolkien, and Isaac Asimov, are still on my ever growing bookshelves. And despite the ever growing pile of “books to read” on the floor, and the ever growing file of book reviews of books I want to read, I still go back and re-read my favorites, even if it means pulling them out of boxes temporarily. Often I see new things in these books, sparking new thoughts and new discussions. And reading them is still a joy. And that’s the way reading should be, always.
So in honor of D.E.A.R. Day and Kurt Vonnegut’s memory, turn off the television and read a book tonight instead.