Tuesday, April 27, 2010

My Life in Books, Part the First

Currently circulating through Facebook: write a brief autobiography based on the books you've read and post it in Notes. My Life In Books. What a compelling idea. But how could I truly capture the influence that books have had? The more I thought about it, the more clearly I could see that this was something I'd need to explore in blogland rather than in Facebook. "Brief" was not going to happen.

According to Mom, I started reading when I was three. The first word I pointed to and read aloud was the, not your typical first word (perhaps an early indication of eccentricities to come.) The earliest books that I remember were the ones that Captain Kangaroo read, Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, The Five Chinese Brothers, and Make Way for Ducklings. The Captain's storytime was my favorite part of the program, a great introduction to good books.

I spent a lot of time in a Portland hospital during my childhood, in for an odd orthopedic birth defect. Some of those surgeries were outstandingly-creative attempts to fix my peculiar hip joint. Reading was the answer to the weeks, sometimes months, of being stuck in a bed. Mom brought books for me, all the classic chapter books - Black Beauty, Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson, Homer Price...Homer Price! That was probably the first book to introduce me to humor in storytelling. All the others were so earnest, full of life lessons, early predecessors to After-School Specials. But Homer Price was funny, with stories about skunks and television superheroes and bracelets lost in donut makers.

Fast forward to high school. I met books that still influence my thinking, books that I regularly revisit. I discovered Elizabeth Goudge's The Scent of Water in the high school library, a book that made me homesick for England despite the fact that I had never been there. It inspired a lifelong hunt for all of Goudge's books, one of the few authors that I deliberately collect.

My favorite senior class was held in the early morning. The only thing we had to do was choose books and read them. No book reports, no analysis, just reading. What a heavenly class that was! The best book for that class was Les Miserables, originally chosen because it was the thickest book on the library shelves. I was a fast reader and I wanted a book that would last longer than a few days. Did it ever! Wow.

High school was responsible for some real yawners, too. We analyzed books right into the ground, killing any simple enjoyment of the story. The worst book? The Great Gatsby. To this day I don't understand the significance of green and yellow or the symbolism of the two Eggs or anything else. We talked the book to death, which is too bad because Fitzgerald was such a good chronicler of his generation. Ah well.

Summer vacations were full of public library visits. I went on Author Binges, especially during the summer that I worked at a produce processing plant. The shift started at 3:00 p.m. and ended when that day's produce was completely processed, sometimes into the early a.m. I have some hilarious stories from that job. Someday I'll write about The Tree Frogs and the Strawberries. Also The Snakes and the Green Beans. But I digress.

Author binges occurred when I discovered a great author and wanted to read more. One summer's reading included Donald E. Westlake, G. K. Chesterton, Franz Kafka, and Agatha Christie. An odd group, really, but they hit the spot. Agatha's books turned out to be more formulaic than I expected. By the time I'd read eight or nine, I could predict who had done it most of the time but that didn't stop me from reading all of her books. Westlake was the antithesis of Christie, humorous, gently irreverent, playing with detectives-in-gangland cliches. Chesterton, however, was a challenge, especially Orthodoxy. That was sturdy reading for a 16 year old but it was worth the effort. It revealed that I was fuzzy about my faith and inspired me to pay a lot more attention to what I believed, to think about it, to question things and sort them out. It was a relief sometimes to retreat to Father Brown.

Kafka was...Kafka.

One benefit to author bingeing: should the day come, I will be a formidable player on Jeopardy if "Donald E. Westlake" is a category.

Overheard on Twitter: Playing Tetris is essentially an object lesson in dealing with mistakes.

Next time: My Life in Books, Part the Second. Stay tuned.


kat@krl said...

You read "Orthodoxy" when you were 16 ... And got it?!? My experience with that book, read last year, was mental exclamations of "right on!", usually followed almost immediately by "wait - what?" and then a re-reading of the previous one or two pages. It took me a long time to read that book.

I stand (well sit actually since I'm at my desk, but still) in awe.

Anyway, thanks for the post. Enjoyable as always! 8^)

Christy said...

I loved all those books you read as a child (Mike Mulligan, Chinese Brothers, Ducklings), and the classics you read (Black Beauty, Heidi, Swiss Family Robinson), and Homer Price! I always loved the story of the bracelet in the doughnuts. Whenever I see an automatic doughnut maker now, I always think of that story.

"a book that made me homesick for England despite the fact that I had never been there"
That's funny. Whenever I see pictures of the English and Scottish countryside, I get horribly homesick, though I have never been there either. I long to.

Author binges! I never thought to call it that. I have gone on author binges with Jane Austen, Robert Heinlein, Ngaio Marsh, Jasper Fforde, Dorothy Sayers, Tolkien, and most recently Dickens.

Delightful reading your book-thoughts.
~Christy (Maria's sister)

dulcigal said...

Kat, I read Orthodoxy just like you did: I'd get it and then it would go sideways and my adolescent brain would start to sizzle. It was like trying to visualize the edge of the universe, much of the time.

Christy, I wish you weren't two states away. It was such fun getting to know you a bit better. We have a lot in common!

And thank you both for your kind comments...