(The front of the Los Angeles Public Library)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about reading and writing and the juxtaposition of those two activities. Let me say for the record, I’ve always been an avid reader.
I can still recall the day my mom dropped me off at the public library. I could hardly contain my excitement at the sight of rows and rows of books, all neatly shelved and waiting for me. At least that’s how it felt to my ten-year-old self. Realizing I could take out several books every single week was a thrill that is hard to get in touch with now. I live in a house that is bulging with books and anything new I want is at my fingertips via Amazon and through to my Kindle in under thirty seconds.
My mom read to us all the time when we were little and she quickly wormed in her own favorites – reading aloud the entire Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series as well as the John Carter Mars books for good measure. My mom was always a big fan of sci-fi. I grew up in a house that had books – but everything was so much more moderate in those days – a medium bookcase filled with an odd mixture of hardcover and paperbacks. My mom had taken a correspondence course in creative writing and she had lots of literary type novels mixed in with the Tarzan paperbacks. I delved into those books early – definitely too early for some of the books I read. Dairy of a Mad Housewife is not a book that a kid of twelve is going to understand or appreciate.
Then came the years I could actually purchase books of my own. I remember being a fifteen-year old babysitter whose weekend work had but one goal – spending Sunday afternoon shopping for books at the local corner store. This store contained an amazing rack of paperbacks – remember those spinning racks of books? I couldn’t wait to spend all the money I had made. My main criterion for choosing, in those days, was the thickness of the book. I wanted my money’s worth.
When I could get to town, I would scour my way through the 2nd hand bookstore. My efforts at digging were generally rewarded. I was able to get my hands on the entire set of Ian Fleming’s, James Bond books and all of the Angelique books by a husband and wife team of historical romance writers named Serge and Anne Golan. One of my big regrets, through a couple of moves, is that I lost track of those two sets of paperback novels.
I’ve re-read a few books over the years – books I loved when I was younger. For the most part my older self was not quite so enamoured of what used to pass for the best books of all time. (Case in point – I downloaded the entire Tarzan series for free on my Kindle when I first got it – maybe my mom skipped all the overtly racist stuff in those books when she read them to us.) This was not the case with Angelique. These books were just as great to me at the age of twenty-five and thirty-five as they were when I was fifteen. Recently my son was able to find a few Angelique paperbacks in a 2nd hand book store in Ottawa. He sent them to me and I am happy to report that they were as enjoyable at fifty-five as they were every other time I read them.
Education changed my book reading tastes. I took a lot of literature courses – English, Canadian and American, Modern and Victorian, First Nations and Latin American. They all came with long and expensive reading lists. I admit to becoming a literary snob – only purchasing and reading books that had won awards – most generally by Canadian authors but I could be tempted by the whole short list for the Booker Prize. If you are going to put out $35.00 for a hardcover book, you usually can’t go wrong with award winners. And of course, it was in those years that I developed a passion for hardcover novels to line my book shelves.
A few years ago I had a health crisis that saw me laid up in the hospital for weeks. For most of that time, when I would have been thrilled to spend the hours reading great books, my attention span was reduced to ten minute blocks. Someone kindly brought me a huge stack of MacLean’s magazines and I filled the time reading little snippets. This was all I could manage to wrap my mind around before the euphoria of a shot took over or the onset of pain, which required constant watching for when the next shot would come, distracted me.
Reading choices can change for any number of reasons. I spent some time with my dad when he was dying. It was obviously stressful and my reading reflected my state of mind. I made my way voraciously through J.D. Robb’s (aka Norah Roberts) entire In Death series – genre novels about a NY detective named Eve Dallas. Formulaic – yes, filled with violence – completely, pages of sex scenes between Eve and her hot, Irish, millionaire husband Rourke – now come on; you have to love a character that goes by a single name. It was just what the doctor ordered – distracting to the max!
I joined a book club for a time. I remember feeling amazed at how critical people were of the books we read. It was almost as if the idea of talking about a book was to tear it apart in some way. Of course it wasn’t all about complaints and many people were thoughtful and had great insights. But I do remember coming away from the experience thinking that I was not as discerning as some – to this day it is almost impossible for me not to finish a book I have started – regardless of the quality or whether I am enjoying it. I just get too curious – good, bad, or indifferent – I have to know how it will end.
Now my days are taking up with writing – the hours I used to spend entering into the world my favorite authors created are filled with characters of my own creation. The pile of novels I want to read grows higher and higher on the table beside my chair in the living room. I have an ironclad rule – a book that is not yet read, cannot be put away on a shelf. Stephen King says you have to read to be a writer and I know this is true. I also know that since I starting writing fiction, I’m resting on my reading laurels of old.
I’m curious though – how and why have your reading tastes changed over time? And even more important – how do you manage reading and writing at that same time?