Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Beginnings ...

I buy books, borrow books, trade books—and just plain “lift” them (not from stores)—out of pure love for them. I’m curious about the world they offer, or familiar with an author, or just like the promise of their liner notes. And, because I want to be a better writer, I read to learn my craft. About 20 percent of my library is dedicated to the writing profession.
I keep a good share of my books, and have a collection of about a thousand, ranging from history and biographies to novels, grammar and writers’ guides, the classics, short story and poetry collections, signed editions and best-sellers. I buy a lot of them, because I want to support authors and book stores—plain and simple. If too many of us cheap out, there may not be bookstores in the future. But that is a topic for another column.
I fell in love with reading as a child, spending summers with my grandparents at Chazy Lake, in the Adirondacks. Their camp (a rambling beauty with a Victorian roof, run-around porch and plenty of quiet nooks for reading) held shelves of books from a previous owner, a New York City family who proudly wrote their names on their summer reading selections—and generously left them there when they left. On my bed, in a chair, or on a porch step, I devoured Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books and Mars series; beautifully illustrated fairy tale collections from the early 1900s, now being republished for today’s children. I read “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “Little Women,” “Robinson Crusoe”—book after book, day and night, until I was forced outside or to go to sleep. Fortunately, no one really cared how late I sat up in bed reading, the shutters banging in the wind and waves pounding against the shore. I found the Cherry Ames nursing series, written by two authors, and later wrote my own, original Nancy Drew mystery at 12 (receiving a D- for plagiarism, not realizing one couldn’t just do that. I guess only the Cherry Ames writers shared that privilege, along with all the nameless staff writers who today manufacture popular men’s thrillers for big-name writers whose name on the cover guarantees big sales).
Those summers, I was ignored as much as I wanted to be, left to read all I wanted, and this set the course of my life. I'm sure it's the same for many other readers. Quietly building a love of language, imagination, beautiful books and writing during those summers, I never left their worlds behind. I often imagined that city family, retiring to the woods for summers filled with reading.
Oddly enough, beyond “Dick and Jane,” I wasn't exposed to books at school until about I turned 12, and moved to a school that had a library. There, like a kid with bags and bags of Halloween candy, I worked my way through biographies and historical fiction for young readers. I fell in love with early American colonies and the Revolution, much later turning to histories, books and novels of the Civil War, early presidents, and current issues.
Rich with babysitting money, I joined the Book of the Month Club, turning to the historical fiction of Uris and Michener, DuMaurier and Mary Stewart, and the “Diary of Anne Frank,” which led to a lifelong interest in the Holocaust.
After high school, had I understood there were fields of study in creative writing, I might well have pursued it. Then again, perhaps not; I was hooked on newspapers at an early age, too, lying on the floor with the New York Times every Sunday morning. So I determined to be a journalist, and spent most of my working years in that field. I still work as a journalist, doing freelance business writing and editing for my main income; but my love is fiction, both in writing and reading.
What did it for you? Was there an Atticus Finch-like parent, reading to you before bed, or someone discussing characters or stories at dinnertime? Did you read with a family member or friend? Was it a teacher? One hopes these magical mentors are still around today, introducing our children and children’s children to a world they will otherwise fail to know and love—their lives much the poorer for it.

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