A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Literature as Companionship

Literature as Companionship

by Margarida Cadima

 

In his semi-autobiographical novel Satori in Paris, Jack Kerouac writes about “…the tale that’s told for no other reason but companionship, which is another (and my favorite) definition of literature…”. I quote Kerouac because throughout my life, literature has had a panoply of qualities, among which companionship.

Due to my father’s job, I moved around quite a lot growing up. I’m Portuguese, but I was born in Rome, and have lived in Lisbon, Nairobi, Geneva, New York, Paris and London. Being an only child, I didn’t have a sibling with whom to share this nomadic experience, so I turned to books as companions. Literature was my travel companion.

In 1999, when I moved to Nairobi, Kenya with my parents, I had a children’s version of The Three Musketeers with me. I used to read and re-read it, and through D’Artagnan’s adventures, I could better cope with my own adventure, of adapting to a new culture, a new school and a new language, English. I remember fondly the lunch hours spent in the library reading children’s books and magazines (I was a huge fan of American Girl magazine!), at first trying to read and understand the words on the page, then eventually being able to string together the words and comprehend the story I was reading. Literature was my language companion.

As I grew older, literature continued to accompany me and helping me better understand the world I lived in. In high school, we read Machiavelli’s The Prince, and there you have sprawled on the pages of this work human nature. It is all the more impressive when you think that this book was written some 500 years ago, and how pertinent it remains to our present day. Literature is my companion in understanding human nature.

I will never forget the day when I decided I wanted to devote my life to the study of literature. It was 10th grade English and we had to read The Great Gatsby. Never had I read a book that, to put it simply, contained all of life. The decadence, the idealism, the unrequited love: it was all there! To everyone who has read and loved The Great Gatsby, you know what I’m talking about. At that moment, I knew then I wanted to read and learn about and study more literary works. I want to spend my life delighting and discovering everything literature has to offer. As Italo Calvino said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” I wanted to engage in this dialogue. I wanted to join this never-ending conversation. It was then I decided. Literature is my companion, for life.

I graduated high school in June 2009, less than a year after the global financial crisis exploded. In the news, all we heard was that people were being laid off. There were no jobs. Nobody was being hired. So studying literature did not seem like an obvious choice. Perhaps this generalized hopelessness made it all the more clear that you have to study what you love. It may be cliché, but you have to follow your passion. To this effect, I’m concluding with a quote by  literary critic M.H. Abrams, who graduated high school during the Great Depression and justified his choice of studying literature as follows: “There weren’t jobs in any other profession,” he explains, “so I thought I might as well enjoy starving, instead of starving while doing something I didn’t enjoy.”

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To connect with Margarida, check out her Instagram.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Nancy Will Save Me

Nancy Will Save Me

By E. Barclay Spriggs

Maybe it began with how the pages felt on my fingertips. Perhaps it was the smell of the leaves and glue. Every time I hold a book in my hands, I can leave this world to discover other realms. Even the solid, rectangular shape helps me to stay grounded yet capable of immediate escape. To feel it. To hold it like an old sweater close to my chest. I have always found comfort there.

I chose to study literature because I believe that a passion can be a career. But I became tired. Tired of reading. Books were no longer a joy but a burden.

I study the depths of trauma and violence, abuse and rape. These are real worlds that I feel deserve investigation and exposure. Yet I wondered why I chose this proverbial rabbit hole that continually pulls me into worlds so plagued with darkness. When did literature become so painful? I had made my passion a chore; using books like bricks to wall myself into a somber, lonely place.

I knew I needed a change when the books took over my couch and bed. I spent three nights in a guest bedroom because my work was eating my life. One evening when I couldn’t sleep (what’s new?), I turned over and looked at my late grandmother’s bookshelf where I keep pages of sentimental importance. Instead of turning out the light to stare at the ceiling fan, I sought out one book with a yellow exterior: The Secret of the Old Clock. Its smooth cover and worn pages felt more comfortable than the blankets on the bed.

The violence and trauma of the reality I study faded away as I absorbed the words. They were replaced with childish mystery and action. I had entered a world that I had forgotten; a world that re-released my passion. Nancy Drew had come back to my life. How can she possibly make it? Why would someone leave that threatening message? Who can she alert to say that she is trapped in the cellar?

I ordered the next ten books of the series the following day. I simply could not stop. The stories seemed so innocent and sincere. I had found my therapy: the key of keys that reminded me – despite the brutality of the world – that literature is salvation.

Sometimes we need to return to the place where it all started. For me, it is Nancy Drew: the unstoppable, determined young woman who perseveres. She can tap dance Morse code, she can navigate a schooner single-handedly, she can do acrobatics on a horse’s bare back. And, like a child, I fade away into the pages and forget about the world that will rudely awaken me in the morning.

When the sun sets and I close the book on violence and suffering I enter a place that heals me; that makes me remember how words can lead to other dimensions where happy endings exist. We all need such relief. And I can only hope that we find it, or else life remains an uncomfortable mystery that only the likes of Nancy Drew can solve.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Off the Beaten Path

Off the Beaten Path: Excursions into the lesser known works of classical authors

By Margaret McMillan

The pathway into the oeuvre of a famous author begins differently for every reader. Our unique experiences or timing shape what we take and what we leave. The first work that we read by an author is really a first handshake. Like any initial impression, certain features of an author’s work may stand out, only to be confirmed by future encounters. Other features startle at first, only to gradually fade away. Is the handshake firm? Supple? Do they look you in the eye when they speak?

Unlike a personal introduction, first impressions of authors depend much upon the individuality of the reader. We aren’t confronted face-to-face, but rather we follow along behind – picking up the bread-trail of a writer’s life. We also get to choose what work we read, and this choice in turn often defines how we think about an author’s legacy. What is it that Robert Frost said, “that has made all the difference?” Although we can continue deeper into an author’s thicket of works, when we read that first novel, or poem, or play, we have taken a certain path from which there is no going back. Fortunately, there are twists and turns that allow us, if we’re diligent readers, to revise our preconceptions. Yet, that first work, that first handshake, remains as a powerful impression nevertheless.

It’s a great misfortune that most pathways to classical authors begin in the driest of settings; the high school classroom. Reading a heavily annotated edition of a classic work under the duress of assessment is like trying on prom gowns in an ill lit dressing-room stall. As an English teacher, I realize the challenges of cultivating a good first impression, and try my best to choose works with the realization that this might be my student’s first encounter with an author. I cross my fingers that it won’t be their last. Paving the way for a good first impression is a tall order. Do you choose works that are emotionally accessible or formulaically recognizable? Or do you prioritize the daring or progressive work of an author’s oeuvre? Do you take a risk on the wacky or eclectic, with the hope that students will want more? What exactly makes a work important?

But I find myself rambling away from my intended path for this essay – what happens when we dive deeper into the works of one author? Fortunately for avid readers, first impressions often don’t deter us from returning for more. Part of the joy of reading emerges within the protracted encounter with a single author. When we read multiple works by the same author, we begin to form a relationship that allows us to explore what is really singular and spectacular about their work. Reading the span of an author’s lifetime allows us to understand writing as a process that requires diligence and practice. What a shock to discover a masterpiece that post-dates the accepted zenith of a writer’s career! How humanizing and comforting to stumble upon an earlier novel that’s underwhelming. Discovering the lesser-known works of an author allows us the opportunity to revise and deepen first impressions. I find this particularly true for classical authors whose popular reputation rests upon one well-read book (there’s that prom dress again). I wanted to take the opportunity to share some gems that I discovered by classical authors that are off the beaten path. You probably won’t find them on a high school syllabus, or on your shelf at the local box bookstore. Some of these texts are a footnote in an author’s legacy. Each one offered a new insight for me on an otherwise widely-known author. But, who am to say? For me, these were the paths not taken. For you, they might have been your entry-point.

piazza-talesHerman MelvilleThe Piazza Tales. I’ll begin with Melville because I had the misfortune of a very bad first impression. My experience with Melville began as an undergraduate, reading his bizarre, critical flop, Pierre, or the Ambiguities. As a late teen, the labyrinthine plot, with its Freudian undertones, defeated me. I didn’t return to Melville until graduate school, when a nagging feeling that as a scholar of American studies I probably should give Moby Dick a chance finally prompted me to pick up a copy at an airport kiosk. From there, our relationship was rekindled.

If anyone has the misfortune of being labeled a one-hit wonder, poor Herman Melville certainly would take the literary prize. His masterpiece, Moby Dick, tends to eclipse the rest of his contemporary legacy like a super moon. Ironically, at the time that he published his heavily philosophical story about the white whale, Melville actually experienced a decline in popularity from a readership more interested in his earlier – decidedly lighter – adventure novels and travelogues. This all changed after the 1920s, when literary scholars began to salvage Melville’s legacy, and along with it, the wreck of the Pequod. Now you can pick up a copy anywhere (as proof, see my anecdote above).

For a man whom some scholars designate the first American novelist, it’s no surprise that his lengthiest masterpiece is also his most read. But Melville was a much more versatile writer than Barnes & Noble gives him credit for – he tried his hand at travelogues, short stories, and poetry, including an 18,000 line epic poem in iambic tetrameter. For a taste of Melville that displays his talents in a different light, take a look at his short story collection, The Piazza Tales. The story of Bartleby, the Scrivener puts Melville’s unique humor on display, while Benito Cereno sends chills down your spine and proves that although Ishmael can talk your ear off, Melville doesn’t necessarily require page length to impress.

dred.jpgHarriet Beecher Stowe. Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp. Stowe clearly suffers from a similar tragedy as her contemporary, Melville. Characterized by her most famous (or infamous?) work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe has been pigeonholed into an important but over-simplified role in relationship to American slavery. Despite Stowe’s pro-emancipation sympathies, her sentimentalized portrayal of race in Uncle Tom’s Cabin has since received castigation by numerous scholars, including the African American novelist James Baldwin. However, to view Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Stowe’s one thesis on race is to do a tremendous disservice to her legacy as the most prominent abolitionist of her time.

The tucked up edges of Uncle Tom’s Cabin unravel under the pressure of the political and social complexities explored in Dred. Naïve racial characterization is abandoned for a more sophisticated understanding of African American identity. And at the center of the novel, the problematically submissive figure of Uncle Tom has been replaced by the powerful, prophetic voice of an escaped revolutionary.

captainsRudyard Kipling. Captains Courageous. A book by this title, written by a British Victorian, immediately summons comparisons to Treasure Island. But, Captains Courageous was not written by Robert Louis Stevenson but a more unlikely novelist. Best known for his short stories about India, Rudyard Kipling remains most beloved as the author of The Jungle Book. Luckily for his English-speaking cousins on the far-side of the sea, Kipling also wrote a children’s classic about Americans that resembles the coming-of-age novels of Mark Twain.

As the son of an American millionaire, Harvey Cheyne Jr’s posh lifestyle is interrupted by a storm that washes him overboard during a transatlantic voyage. He is subsequently rescued by a fishing vessel but when he fails to convince the captain of his status, he must spend the rest of the summer catching cod and learning the meaning of real work. The tale’s moral conclusion comes across as authentic rather than heavy-handed, and Kipling’s use of dialect to capture the fishermen’s unique speech patterns adds color to his portrayal of maritime life.

cape cod.jpgHenry David Thoreau. Cape Cod. Usually readers first encounter Thoreau in one of two places; on the banks of Walden Pond or in jail. But, as Thoreau himself admits in his numerous essays, he enjoyed a good long walk, and he sometimes would travel great distances by other means in order to take one. Cape Cod describes several such walking excursions to what Thoreau describes as the “bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.”

For even aficionados of Thoreau, Cape Cod might still be off the beaten path, simply because this work was published posthumously and has received limited critical attention until recently. During his lifetime, Thoreau lectured on a wide variety of topics, including this trip. According to newspaper accounts, his description of Cape Cod kept his audience in stitches. Despite Thoreau’s admiration of the Romantic poets, Cape Cod might be considered a satire of picturesque nature writing. Thoreau’s sardonic observations about the harshness of coastal life provide a more complex picture of the hostility of nature than Walden. Despite the irony, Cape Cod contains some of Thoreau’s most poetic descriptions – in particular, his account of a lighthouse. Reading Cape Cod further clarifies Thoreau’s perception of the natural world, and man’s place in it.

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Margaret McMillan just finished an MA in American Literature, where she spent some quality time with our good pal Ishmael. Now, she’s enjoying staying home with her toddler and reading lots of Llama Llama Red Pajama

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} The Two Rs

The Two Rs

By LE Orison 

I remember being unable to read. I remember the boxes of words lined up neatly at the bottom of the page, and the letters within shifting: unknown, tantalizing, a puzzle just beyond my comprehension. That book happened to be a mystery, adding to the wonder when my older brother finally sounded out the text, revealing the story’s secret to my ears, if not my eyes.

Once I knew how, I read gluttonously. I read until my eyes stopped focusing and my head pounded, and our doctor confirmed that I must be separated from the printed word to recover. (I am stubborn; this happened several times before I learned moderation.) I spent many afternoons walking to our library, through the cool shadows and deadly blind curves and hills of our neighborhood to the heat, dust, and exhaust of downtown sidewalks; on these trips, I tried to choose only those books I wished to carry the miles home. I always chose more than was comfortable.

As the motto for his coat of arms in high school, my brother chose an oft-repeated phrase in our house: “When in doubt, look it up.” For mine, I chose Sir Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man.”

College—an amazing wealth of unfamiliar titles, fresh libraries, new thoughts, bound by never-enough time. Basic military training, when only religious works and the official soldier’s guide were tolerated—drought, starvation. Every snatch of news or fiction, secreted to me in letters by friends, burst in my mind with the intensity of the sugar we were also forbidden and in the heady joy of graduation, I went to the bookstore with my family and bought five or six books at full price, only to have them confiscated at the start of my next training.

Access to books, and time to read, have come in waves through my life, not often synchronized. Limitation of choices has pushed me to devour work I might not otherwise have bypassed—fumbling through a pile of battered paperbacks in a plywood library the size of a bathroom—or to wait weeks in anticipation of a book I ordered from overseas, hoping it contains the information I craved.

Even now, my wallet contains three library cards. My shelves are perpetually in flux. There is never any question in my husband’s mind about what I might like for Christmas or my birthday, and the list of books I want to read never grows any shorter.

 

But beside the pure pleasure of vicarious experience, the quest for understanding, there is the conjoined twin of reading in my life: writing.

I cannot be sure when I began, only that the first story I recall fit within a half sheet of lined paper, abandoned from the frustration of scribing it rather than a dearth of ideas. I wrote about stories. I wrote down my dreams. I wrote page after page of stereotypical or preachy fantasy, and the older I grew, the more I wrote. Siblings and friends received questionable gifts of short stories, teen crushes inspired poetry, and through college and military service, a series of blogs chronicled the deep thoughts of my life and experience. (Despite my tongue-in-cheek cynicism, then, as now, the occasional flash of truth comes through. Void? Do you hear it?)

I never finished a novel draft until the waiting days following that first deployment—hours spent alone in my new apartment, without school or work to distract me. My husband remained with his unit, still overseas for another four months. In his absence, I found a book: No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. I read it. I believed. And within a month and a half, I completed my first full draft.

 

I write because I want to read. I write because the visions in my head are unclear without structure, because I wake up from a dream and want to know what happens next. I write because I am a reader.

The last eleven years have seen fourteen novels begun, seven fully drafted. In no small part this is due to National Novel Writing Month, but the truth is that I write year-round. At present, I have four novels in my head. Three follow the same story; the first I am editing, the second I began drafting in November but did not complete, and the third exists as a disjointed collection of scenes, clamoring for a clear plot. The fourth novel is entirely different—dystopian science fiction rather than fantasy, multiple viewpoints instead of one; it is my experiment, my sabbatical, my quandary.

 

I read, because I want to write.

My shelves are stocked with books on plot, punctuation, conflict and suspense, revision, characterization, and thesauri of setting, trait, emotion. But they also contain a book on violence. A manual for body guards. Books on strategy, history, politics, war, religions. I have definitive works on both Japanese and European sword fighting. Overviews of monarchy throughout the world. Dictionaries in Welsh, Russian, Slovak, Icelandic, and Italian. Most recently, I am reading The Art of Intrusion. The Art of Deception. Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief. 100 Deadly Skills, Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, How Do It Know?, C++ in 10 Minutes, and Beginner’s Programming—All-in-One Desk Reference.

I begin reading these things because the story in my mind requires greater understanding of my subject. As I read, the story grew; as the story grows, more knowledge is needed. Over and over, the edges of my world flex and twist, revealing new lands beyond. One book leads me to another, chasing rabbit trails of fact, but always to this central point: to improve my own writing, the reigning story, in turn. I still love reading fiction, old favorites and new finds, yet the story in my head takes precedence over them all until it is complete.

The best reading has become when I forget the words I have written, when the story captures me past criticism and moves me. When the book lives on its own. When I am audience, not scribe.

 

Yet after three decades, history repeats.

For the language base in The Queens’ Defense series, I picked Korean because I liked how it sounded. I stole words and romanized names without care when I began. Now, nearly two years later, that language has stolen my heart. As I study it, words march across the page in tidy squares and rectangles, imbued with mystery, black on the white page. I cannot look away. Already I long to answer.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention. . . . Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.” –Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

Someday, when I have learned to think in 한국어,  writing will follow. For what else are books but a slow conversation through time?

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To read more of LE Orison’s work, check out her blog at https://writerintransience.wordpress.com/.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} How Jane Austen Changed My Life

How Jane Austen Changed My Life

By Alyssa Dulaney


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Hello all! I am Alyssa—avid reader, aspiring writer, ambitious college student, and lover of coffee, Jane Austen, and Jesus. Did I mention blogger? I started Pen to Paper Collections having utterly no clue what I was doing, but knowing I wanted to share my passion for literature (and random musings) with others. I leapt blindly into the world of blogging. Two years later, I’ve yet to have it all figured out, because it’s a journey, as it must be with all things worth doing, but here I am. I’m honored that you are now a part of that journey!

 

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Once upon a time, there was a girl who was very fond of once-upon-a-times. She read many books; and not just the ones that were required. She carried them in her purse and in her heart, and she wrote them in her head. At the age of 14, she happened upon a copy of Emma, which she poured through with impenetrable attention. That was when it all began: what some would label an obsession. I prefer the term “dedication,” but to each his own!

As you may have guessed, that girl was myself. And Emma is, of course, Jane Austen’s beloved masterpiece. I finished the book, though I didn’t want it to end. The only reasonable remedy for my curious mind afterward was to read all of Miss Austen’s other works. So I did. Her life, works, and era soon became the topics of many a paper, blog post, and conversation. My Jane Austen collection of books, mugs, journals, cook books, and candles grew. I won’t deny that I have seen nearly all the film adaptions, become some-what of a critic for any attempt at imitation, and have a Jane Austen quote for every occasion, unashamedly. My family and friends have since written me off as a hopeless bibliophile. And it all began with a borrowed generic paperback.

What was it that made this author so special to me then and still now? She ignited something invaluable in me. She was the literary genius that became my ultimate inspiration. Because of her, my love for reading grew beyond what it had ever been before. My adoration for her novels was accompanied by an intrigue for the Romantic Era and surrounding eras. I exposed myself to authors like John Keats, Lord Byron, Charlotte Bronte, Victor Hugo, and Elizabeth Gaskell—all history-makers of the literary world. The style, the ways of society, the beautiful words used to describe even the simplest things, outlining their deeper meaning—I found it all captivating. They invited me into their worlds, and those words that speak of their lives, in turn, speak into mine.

As inexplicably wonderful as that all is, Jane has affected more than just my choice in reading material. In some way or another, she has managed to touch nearly every area of my life. Foremost, I give her due credit for my pursuits in a literature-based education as well as my desire to write. I am both an English major and an aspiring writer—say what you will about the impossibilities there. What can I say? She has made me a dreamer.

My desire to be a writer was just that for a long time—a desire. But as my knowledge of Jane Austen and other literary giants expanded, that desire morphed into a decision. Although she did not publish under her name in her lifetime (she published under “By A Lady”), Jane had the boldness to write in a time when lady writers were not only questioned, but scorned by society. She wrote with a sort of satirical wit, undeniable by anyone familiar with her work. This was highly unexpected of any woman, much less one who was unmarried and devoid of fortune. It could go without saying that her courage ignited my own. Specifically, in my writing, yes; but also in the way I present myself every day.

My crazy, far-fetched desire is to have as outstanding an influence on others—in the present and the future—as Jane continues to have on me, through the messages in and between the lines on a page. Have I built an outlandish dream? Absolutely. But so did Miss Austen. It is in this way that reading has defined who I am, and Jane Austen has changed my life.

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Interested in being a guest blogger for A Reading Life? Submit your ideas here.

 

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} How Reading Changed My Life in 2016

How Reading Changed My Life in 2016

by Jennifer LeBlanc

As a little girl, with a Dick & Jane reader, I learned to read. I remember the exact moment that the letters turned into words: all at once the story had wings.

I read all throughout my childhood and teenage years, and majored in English in college. Almost 20 years since my university days, I fondly remember the hours spent in my college library, browsing small hardcover copies of great works of literature. That was the year I read Jane Eyre, Dickens’ Hard Times, Jane Austen, and Wuthering Heights. That was the year I met my husband, who is (happily) also a reader.

We married a few years later and had two daughters. Some of my happiest motherhood moments have been spent reading aloud together – Charlotte’s Web, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Winnie the Pooh, Beatrix Potter, Because of Winn-Dixie, and The Boxcar Children.

But at some point in the last few years, in the constancy of raising my girls, I stopped prioritizing my own reading. Life as a young family was busy, and I let social media, movies, and other hobbies fill in the cracks of time I could call my own.

As 2015 wrapped up, I set a Goodreads Reading Challenge to read 12 books in 2016. I figured I would strive to average a book a month for the year. My real goal was not the number, but to make reading a regular part of my life again. I really had no idea how much my goal would change my life. Here’s how reading changed my life in 2016:

I Fell in Love with History

Nonfiction books like Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand and fiction titles like Number the Stars and The Book Thief gave me an entry point into historic events. Stories brought color to things that were only black and white in school textbooks. Now with an increasing number of books under my literary belt, I am beginning to stitch events together in my mind and see history as a seamless road stretching backwards, not as separate, unrelated events. I can see cause and effect; how what transpired in one decade influenced and shaped what happened in the next. Reading about Louie Zamperini’s time in Japanese Prisoner of War camps helped me better understand what my mom’s step-dad went through as a POW in Japan during World War II. Reading books set during historical times, turned a light on in my mind, giving me a thirst for learning and knowledge.

I Learned to Do Things That Intimidated Me

For whatever reason, I have been intimidated by big books, and tended to read titles less than 350 pages. I have also been scared to read about certain topics. In 2016, I learned that everything you accomplish that you are afraid of gives you strength and confidence for the future. I read books over 500 pages, and am tackling one over 800 pages this year. Learning to stick with something, to persevere, and to overcome self-imposed barriers has had positive effects in other areas of my life. Sometimes our limits are real; sometimes we create them ourselves.

I Strengthened the Relationship with My Daughter

My oldest daughter, a seventh-grader, and I formed a sort of Mother-Daughter Book Club when I decided to read a book she was assigned to read for Language Arts class. I read it, she read it, and we discussed it. Since then we’ve had a shared bond and common language others don’t have. It’s given us inside jokes and camaraderie we wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s given us language for other people’s struggles and other times and places.

I Gained a World All My Own

Reading so much last year gave me a world all my own. No matter what was happening in my day, I knew that reading was waiting for me. I love the feeling of being in my own life and someone else’s at the same time, of knowing that there is always the comfort and inspiration of words to benchmark my days. As an introvert, I love how reading is solitary, and yet shared with others all around the world. I love how reading gives you a way to travel without leaving your home or town. It’s home and abroad, it’s comfort and challenge, it’s heart-warming and devastating, it’s soothing and exhilarating. It’s anything you want it to be.

Reading made me stronger in 2016. It made me knowledgeable and more confident. It took me to far-away places. It gave me empathy and insight and courage. I never want to forget the power of a literary life.

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Jennifer LeBlanc is a mother, writer, and artist living on the west coast with her teacher husband and two daughters. She is fascinated by people’s stories and reads partially to answer the question, “What is life like for others?” In 2016 she read 82 books. You can find her on Instagram at @liveart_fully, or on Facebook at Live Art.fully. She is working on her first book.

A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Why I Read

Why I Read

by Kaytee Cobb

cobb-maternity-19Hello, my name is Kaytee. I’m a relatively new-ish book blogger over at notesonbookmarks.wordpress.com. I love to read; and when I’m done, I love getting to interview authors for my site. But that’s just a little part of who I am. My husband, Jason, and I are about to celebrate 11 years of marriage. We met at the University of Arizona, so we are avid Wildcats fans. I finished a Masters in Spanish while he went to Medical school and then we moved to Oregon for three years, where we had a hard time with the dreary skies. In 2012 we moved to Albuquerque, NM, to be closer to family (but not so close that we get free babysitting!), and enjoy the sunshine again! I’m also a homeschool mama of three sweet, little boys, director of our local homeschool co-op, and considering becoming a lactation consultant (or maybe an author!) as a “later” career path… but my plate is too full right now. Reading is where my heart is, so I’m looking forward to being here as a guest today to tell you about WHY I READ!

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I’ve been an avid reader ever since I was a little girl. I loved destroying my classmates in monthly reading challenges in school (competitive, much?). Like many of us, I fell off the reading bandwagon a bit while I was in college because I had so much other required reading to do, and much of mine was in my second language. The limited number of hours in a week meant that free-time for reading was almost non-existent. After I finished my degree, I took a slow dive back into the bookish world, typically reading somewhere between 30 and 50 books a year, even after having our first baby or two.

That number has exploded over the past year, though, even as we added baby #3. I’ve found ways to squeeze reading into every free moment of my life, whether I’m driving, cooking, cleaning, or homeschooling, there’s a book in my hand or in my ears. I just cannot get enough. I’ll read anything I can get my hands on, but especially love good literary fiction, and I can devour a psychological thriller in just a few hours. I could write another entire post about how I read so much with three littles at home, but this post is about the reasons.

When I open a book for the first time, I am so excited to discover a new world (or re-enter a favorite one, if this is the next in an already-loved series). I cannot wait to meet new characters, explore new landscapes, or feel new feelings. I am thrilled to fall in love for the first time (again!), run away from a killer, or experience the prejudices of racism. Maybe this time I’ll grow up in the south, see the world through the fingers of a blind man, or live in India. I might be part of these characters’ lives for a week or a year or three generations. Every single new book that I open reveals another facet of the world I love to explore.

As I jump from book to book, I am transported from space stations to springtime in Manhattan, from the battlefields of WWII to a future I could never imagine. Great fiction takes me there, for far less than the cost of a plane ticket, or time machine.

Non-fiction involves the same transportation, but always somewhere of this world. Perhaps I know myself better; perhaps I walk a hard road alongside the author; or perhaps I recognize the seedy underbelly of a society that I have never seen before. When non-fiction authors open my eyes, they force me, or maybe just help me to look further inward and outward than I have in the past. These authors open up new worlds that exist right here around me, instead of only in the pages of their books.

Last year, I read 123 books (remember I said my reading exploded?). That means I had 123 new worlds opened up to my eyes via fiction and non-fiction. This year, I look forward to reading even more. I know that with every word I devour I become more than I was. I know more, yes, but I am more, too.

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A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Reading: A Time and a Place

Reading: A Time and a Place

by Danielle Young

It’s a universal experience, isn’t it? The way that a smell or sound can instantly transport you back in time. The smell of cinnamon and apple cider takes you back to Christmas at Grandma’s, or the smell of nail polish reminds you of getting ready for high school prom. We’ve all had that experience.

I’m sure that the readers among us can attest to a similar tie between books we’ve read and the times and places we’ve read them.

I’ve always been a reader, one who grew up among readers. We had more books than space in my childhood home, but it was cozy to be surrounded by so many opportunities for adventure. Even as a kid, I drew strong emotional connections between the story being read and the situation I was in at the time.

Dr. Seuss’s Oh Say Can You Say? belongs on the lap of my mom, snuggled back in the corner of the gray-beige couch. I fingered the fraying threads—pulled loose by a family cat—on the couch’s right arm, and giggled as my mom huffed and puffed and mock-muddled her way through the silly rhymes of bottles and beetles and battles.

And Charlie on the Chocolate Factory belongs to my dad’s lap, and his old leather chair, a hand-me-down from a great-grandfather I barely remembered. Behind me, my dad is firmer than my mom—less silly, more serious, but delighted in Dahl’s dark humor and full of animation as he performed the parts of Augustus, Veruca, Violet and Mike.

The Chronicles of Narnia—all of them, read quickly, back-to-back—belong on the couch under the front window in blazing hot summertime. I wore a tank top and pajama shorts. The front door was propped open by a steady stream of the air conditioner installation crew and the hope that this would finally be the day they got it working. The Narnians wanted Christmas—I just wanted a breeze.

I first met The Hobbit on a plane ride to India. I made friends and learned about a foreign culture while I traveled; and I watched dwarves and a wily little hobbit defeat an evil dragon. The hope of doing the impossible still lingers when I think about the struggles faced in the region where my Indian friends live.

In college, after dark and long hike through some hills, lying flat on the rocky soil and bundled in a sweatshirt and blanket, with the heads of six friends clustered in a circle over our books and the lamplight, we took turns reading aloud—and there is Homer’s Odyssey. I don’t remember the details of the story, but I remember being cold and having to pee, and the thrill I felt when the story swung upward just as the sun peaked over the horizon.

I met Anna Karenina at camp, the summer before I moved out of my parents’ home and considered myself a “real” adult. Anna warned me to be true: be true to who I am, yes, but hold on to the Truth more firmly than ever.

In Italy, the local bookstore had one shelf of English books, and so I spent the end of a three week trip sprawled in front of a window fan reading half a dozen Nicholas Sparks books. The Von Trapp Family Singers are on a bus in Greece, when I could stay awake long enough to make sense of what I was reading. Louise Penny belongs at my in-laws’, where Small Town, Utah mirrors Three Pines, and John Green is in a guest house on the Central Coast, with my babies napping on the other side of the door and me worrying that someday they will be teenagers.

Isn’t that one of the amazing things about stories? The authors wrote them in a certain time and place, and shared them with me, and the stories became a part of my life. My college days are inextricably tied to Homer, just as Roald Dahl shaped my childhood. And the stories that have become part of me continue to share themselves: I will share with my children the stories that spoke loudest to me, and in turn, those stories become a part of our home and are woven in my children’s life stories.

Not every book belongs somewhere—many, probably most, fade into distant memory without a clear emotional connection to the place. But sometimes—the right book and the right place collide, and the two become inseparable.

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danielleDanielle Young lives in California with her husband, kindergartener son and preschool-aged daughter. In between working full-time with homeschool parents and raising her own littles, Danielle blogs at SensibleWhimsy.com, where she writes about homeschooling, parenting, and, of course, reading.

 

 

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A Reading Life: {Guest Post} Barbara and Zora

Barbara and Zora: Reflections on Reading as Tribute

by Whitney Lorraine

My grandmother left small town North Carolina when her family realized that her big mouth was going to get her killed one day. Grandma asked too many questions for a short dark skinned black woman in the South. She spoke out of turn. She was too smart for her own good. Knowing her, she probably held gazes instead of looking away.

She left for the city— Fayetteville— to get her college degree, before following her military man to Washington DC. There, she earned her master’s degree at American University, concentrating in Special Education. Strict, patient, and determined, she taught behaviorally challenged children for over 30 years before retiring.

I was no match for her. Bright yet rebellious, I attempted to reject everything she taught. Attempted being the operative word. She refused to buy digital clocks and watches until I learned how to properly tell time. She refused to give me the 5 cents when I failed to calculate tax on a candy bar. She charted my good days on the fridge, and took me to the movies when they began to outnumber the bad days. Kudos Grandma, for sitting through The Ring while I kept my face covered throughout the majority of the film.

When I discovered books, it was Grandma who would spend hours with me at Borders bookstore (Rest in Peace Borders), when I couldn’t decide between the latest “I’m a witch discovering my powers in high school” and “the new boy in school is really hot but has a secret” books. As a teenager, she was the person who drove in the dark when I absolutely had to pick up Deathly Hallows at midnight.  She cultivated my intellectual development while others emphasized my athletic ability.

When she passed, two cancers simultaneously overtaking her body, I searched her home for something I could take with me. Her modest estate wouldn’t be released for months following, but I was looking for something with more sentimental value than monetary. Walking around the house in her plush white cotton robe, my gaze settled on a bookshelf near the door to the garage.

Moses, Man of the Mountain. Seraph on the Suwanee. Their Eyes Were Watching God.

There were more, but those were the three I took. Taking more felt less like picking a token and more like the beginnings of clearing her home.

Now, these three books sit together on my bookshelf, an altar to a woman who quite literally taught me everything I know.  I’ve made a pact to myself to spend her birth month—August—familiarizing myself with Zora Neale Hurston’s work as my own personal tribute. I’ll finish these three, interspersing them with her poems and short stories, before moving on to Mules and Men, which was left on the shelf in North Carolina.

I like to think she saw herself in these books. Perhaps somewhere in Hurston’s accented dialogue are echoes of our family in North Carolina.  But I also like to think she saw herself in a bold and unyielding woman like Zora Neale Hurston— maybe in reading more of Zora, I’ll find that I have Barbara on my bookshelf too.

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whitneyWhitney Lorraine is a 20-something book reviewer and blogger at Brown Books & Green Tea, where she focuses on diverse literature. Born and raised in Maryland with roots in the Bahamas, she’s hopelessly devoted to seafood, tea, and rum. She’s also quite friendly, so hit her up on Twitter or Instagram with great book recommendations!

 

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A Reading Life: {Guest Post} The Influence of Books in Early Childhood

The Influence of Books in Early Childhood

by Katie Fitzgerald

During the past few months, I have read two wonderful vintage books about the influence of reading on families with young children. Annis Duff’s Bequest of Wings (1944) is a lovely reflection on her family’s relationship to all different books as her children grew from infancy to adolescence. Drawing on her training as a children’s librarian, Duff provides recommendations of favorite books for others to enjoy as well as anecdotes about her children’s conversations and make believe games inspired by those books. In Books Before Five (1954), another children’s librarian, Dorothy White, shares the diary she kept in the first five years of her daughter’s life. Here she has carefully documented each book her daughter enjoyed and the impact of these titles on the young girl’s imagination and worldview.

My daughters, who will turn one and three this Fall, are the children of two librarians, and they have both been surrounded by books since birth. I have always recognized the importance of reading to children, and the positive influence it can have on a child’s development of language. What I did not realize, however, is how delightful it would be to see the more personal influence of books on my individual children’s lives. Thanks in part to Duff and White, I have been paying close attention lately to how the books I and my husband share with our older daughter infiltrate her play, her conversation, and her understanding of the world. What I am learning is that books do much more during early childhood than prepare a child for independent reading; in truth, they help a child build up her own relationship to the world.

Books enrich a child’s vocabulary. The most obvious way books have influenced my daughter is by building up her vocabulary. From books, she has learned to say “I scraped my patella” when she skins her knee, and that grasshoppers breathe through spiracles. She doesn’t just push a basket across the room, she gives it a “mighty heave” a la the animals in Mr. Gumpy’s Motor Car, and thanks to a National Geographic easy reader, she knows that owls “swoop and snatch” their prey. On Fourth of July weekend, when we went to see fireworks, she said, “I wish every day could be the Fourth of July!” quoting a favorite character from her Highlights High Five magazine. Books give her words that the average adult doesn’t use every day, and she incorporates them into her own daily speech in unique and surprising ways.

Books help a child make sense of the world. It is always easier to learn something new when you can build upon knowledge already established. Books have given my daughter background knowledge in everything from the work of firefighters, to the clothing we wear in the winter, to how to interact with a new baby. When she sees a firetruck, she recognizes it because “that’s what Dot the Fire Dog rides on!” Thanks to a poem from Read-Aloud Rhymes for the Very Young called “The Mitten Song” she knows exactly where to place her thumb and fingers when putting on mittens to play in the snow. And the many big sister books we bought and borrowed when her baby sister was born last September gave her the confidence to assume her big sister role with great aplomb. It is also much easier to explain new concepts to a child who has been read a variety of books, as there is always something on which to hang the new information. I have used Stanley the Mailman to explain to her what the mail carrier in our neighborhood is doing each day, and nonfiction easy readers have helped prepare her for seeing fireworks, going to a baseball game, seeing the doctor, playing a piano at her grandmother’s house, and attending a birthday party.

Books inspire a child’s imagination. My daughter’s make believe world, which is frequently brought to life on the living room floor with blocks and peg dolls, is a mishmash of the many characters, authors, and themes she has first encountered in books. For a while, she was calling one of her baby dolls “Maurice Sendak” after the beloved author of Where the Wild Things Are. After reading The Relatives Came, she suddenly became insistent that peg dolls of certain colors all be addressed as “uncle,” and she announced periodically that her toy cars were headed to Virginia. At the park, clumps of trees become “the forest” and passing dogs might be identified as Harry (Harry the Dirty Dog), George (Bark, George), or Willie (Whistle for Willie.) Her rubber ducks are sometimes called by names from Make Way for Ducklings (Jack, Kack Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and/or Quack), and she frequently reenacts dramatic scenes from The Tub People and The Pea Patch Jig, complete with entire sections of dialogue lifted from the books. Because hearing stories has allowed her to look in on experiences she has not had in her own life, her pretend play is complex and nuanced in a way that it could not be without books.

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katieKatie Fitzgerald is a trained children’s librarian, author of Story Time Success: A Practical Guide for Librarians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and blogger at storytimesecrets.blogspot.com. She lives in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, with her academic librarian husband and two daughters.

 

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