Writers on Reading
March is National Reading Month, which I am happy to celebrate since—like most writers—I love to read! My earliest reading memories are of sitting in my father’s lap before supper as he read to me from a thick red book called The World’s Best Fairy Tales. Both of my parents were avid readers and regular users of the public library, and I have followed in their footsteps.
Recently I was sifting through a pile of papers in my office when I came across an issue of the New York Times Book Review that I had saved from July 2, 2020. One feature of the Book Review is “By the Book,” in which they interview an author about what he or she is reading. In this one, they ask NPR “Morning Edition” co-host and author Steve Inskeep to “Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).” I love the way he answered (check it out here) and thought it would make a great writing prompt. And it was!
What you will read below are favorite reading memories and reflections based on that prompt from some of the writers in my Amherst Writers & Artists workshop, “Writing from the Heart.” I hope you will enjoy their stories, and perhaps add your own. Feel free to share yours in the comments!
My reading life began in earnest when I was eight years old. Curled up in an oversized bean bag chair my parents had bought for my bedroom, I read E.B. White’s classic, The Trumpet of the Swan. While I lounged in the chair and absorbed the lessons, I was filled with reassurance that with enough perseverance, I would find a way to come into my own in the world, too.
As the years progressed, the bean bag chair became too small and too worn to support my reading journeys, so it was replaced with a bright orange, velvet upholstered accent chair that sat in the corner of my bedroom, overlooking a curtained window that was often bathed in sunlight. It was a monstrosity by anyone else’s standards, but I loved it. I added delightful touches to the chair to include bright blue throw pillows and an end table to hold all of my reading instruments – highlighters, colored pens, and book flags. It was in this modern chair that I sat at age sixteen and dissected Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and wondered how many of my dreams and aspirations would actually end up causing me life-altering distress.
Following college in my early 20s came graduate school, full-time employment, and my own apartment. Not having had a chair to call my own for several years and knowing that I would be spending hours reading, I immediately invested in a proper reading chair. Curled up in an oversized yellow chair with a Lawson-style silhouette set next to a sun-drenched window with light filtered through gauzy curtains, I read numerous books. Most were school-related titles such as Hilton Root’s Capital and Collusion: The Political Logic of Global Economic Development, but while on school breaks I indulged in my guilty pleasure of reading historical romance and devoured Eloisa James’ numerous titles. The yellow chair supported this dichotomy with ease – my masculine energy rising as school nurtured my left brain and taught me about economics, global power dynamics, and international business, while my feminine energy swooned with stories of women fully embracing their sexuality. In this chair, I could have it all.
After I finished school, motherhood arrived, and I found myself reeling from all of the lessons these books taught me. It didn’t seem to matter how hard I worked, the pieces didn’t come together. Amidst my dreams and aspirations, there arose a constant state of angst and disappointment that made me feel insane, and my masculine and feminine energies felt depleted. I most definitely could not have it all.
It was at this time that I needed my yellow chair the most. Always at home in my large yellow chair, I sipped coffee with milk or warm herbal tea. With blankets or without, it became my reading nest. My comfort, my home, my security.
Recently when I found Glennon Doyle’s memoir Untamed, I climbed into my abandoned chair after a long hiatus. The rigors of motherhood had left me little time, space, or energy to sit and enjoy the warm, reassuring embrace of my beloved chair. As the now dilapidated chair held me in its arms, Glennon’s words reverberated in my mind, shook free my doubt and shame, and soothed my weary maternal soul. Her memoir gave me a roadmap for merging myself, my ego, my “me,” with the “us” of my family. The yellow chair provided the comfort and familiarity I needed to lower my guard to fully absorb her words, to begin to mend my brokenness.
A part of that mending is appreciating that my life has expanded. As I descended the stairs on a cold weekend morning, I caught my eight-year-old son, book in hand, nestled in the cushions of my large yellow chair like a little bird. He had stumbled upon Geronimo Stilton’s “Kingdom of Fantasy” series and was so engrossed in the story that he didn’t even see me. He too had found the warmth and comfort of that chair. I looked upon him like a mother bird eyes her baby—filled with love, admiration, and nostalgia as he sat quietly and serenely in my nest, safely guarded and supported as he began his reading life in what was now our yellow chair.
I was five years old growing up in Greece when my mother came home from shopping with Hans Christian Andersen’s book of fairy tales. That same evening at dusk, before my father came home from work, we sat in the sunroom as my mother read to me “The Little Match Girl.” I intently listened to the story as my own childhood tears slowly streamed down my cheeks.
It’s 1979 in our house in Canada, sitting at the kitchen table reading The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. My mother was visiting from Greece, and she was cooking dinner when she saw me wipe away the tears from my eyes.
It’s 1980 in our house in Canada again, sitting in the living room looking at the cold wintry landscape outside my window with William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice on my lap. I had to divert myself from the story that had broken my heart in so many ways.
Fast forward to the mid-1980’s, and I am reading The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I am still living in Canada sitting in my family room looking at the backyard. This is the book that hooked me on reading spy thrillers, and I haven’t averted from them ever since.
It’s the mid-1990’s, and I’m living in the US and reading The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith. The movie by the same title, with Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, brought back memories of the 1960’s original French movie version, Purple Noon, with Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. That was the movie my brother took me to see, and after that I wanted to read every book by Patricia Highsmith.
Books. They are the friends that never talk back and the places that we can only dream of visiting. The adventures that only in our dreams can we get away with. Books take us away from everyday life, teach us new adventures, and help us learn new things.
The best reading is done to the accompaniment of rain drops splatting against the window or drumming on the roof. A gentle fire in the green cast iron stove, doors open to reveal the dancing flames. There’s got to be a sense of stealing time—running away from so-called important tasks that need doing. An escape from the responsibilities of adult life and a retreat to childhood glee and also serenity. A comfy spot well supported with cushions so if, just if, my eyes might close, I would quickly slide into that blissful quiet of unknowing and be awakened by the fat stare of my best cat.
It is today; I am home from work at last.
I am lying under a soft fluffy blanket reading
Jane Harper’s brand new book, The Survivors.
It is January 2018 and I am lying in a giant wicker lounge,
overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Maui.
I am reading a cold wintery book of Russian folk tales,
celebrating my 25th wedding anniversary.
It is 2010 and I am in an airplane. I click my seatbelt and settle in
for many hours of uninterrupted reading time. I hold my Kindle, the battery
is full, the titles have been downloaded.
It is all the nighttimes and naptimes
and any kind of times when I am holding
a book I loved as a child and reading it
to my children.
It is 1989 and just after lunch. I go up
to the Shaw Library and sit in a wingback chair.
I find my most boring textbook,
open it, and drift off to sleep.
It is 1981 and I am in school. It is
math, or history, or science; I am not sure.
I am holding a book in my lap, trying to look
like I am paying attention while trying to read
some forgotten title that I can’t put down.
Photo of the Shaw Library (London School of Economics)
Whispers of Stories
Time for a bedtime story was out of the question for the family. There were eight of them. Love in the family was strong, but time was too valuable, and as for money there was none. Silly books were not on the list of needs and the word want was never spoken.
Crawling into bed, lying beneath blankets, eyes closed, the child’s mind began to drift. Whispers of letters, creation of a word, adding another word, followed by others; the letters and words became a perfect woven string of togetherness, a sentence. The intimacy of many whispered sentences formed a paragraph.
Soon the child’s mind and soul thirsted for more. Now paragraphs turned into chapters. Creation from her mind whispers became her personal bedtime stories.
As the child became older, daydreams took control. The dark hallway closet became the perfect place to hear those beloved whispers. The child’s silent stories began in the darkness of night; her daydreams would begin in the darkness of day. Whispers were seldom heard as Mother’s needs for help with the younger children came first.
As time passed, so did the whispering of her mind stories. A building called the Library became her new hideaway. So many books, so many choices. Reaching out, gently taking a book off the shelf, her fingertips traced the layers of pages; she fell in love.
With the passing of time, a great need to write has returned within me. I now write my mind whispers in the light of day and in the light of night. Whisperings of letters become words; words forming sentences; sentences turning into paragraphs; paragraphs creating chapters; chapters which one day may be woven into a book.
I'm ten. I'm lounging in the hammock on my back porch on a blistering Long Island summer day reading one of the books I've checked out of the library, already anticipating returning in two weeks for more.
I'm sitting in my dorm room, at my desk, slogging through Henry James and trying to make sense of him for a paper due the next day.
I'm on my bed in the upstairs attic room of my childhood devouring Nancy Drew books.
I'm on a river cruise in Europe sitting in the ship's library browsing the selections on their shelves.
I'm in my recliner at home, unable to put down The Huntress by Kate Quinn so I can go make dinner.
I'm at the Rust Library Book Club having just been introduced to the wonderful writer, Ivan Doig, discussing his book, Work Song.
I'm at the closing days of Borders Books. I pick up my first Ayn Rand book, Atlas Shrugged, which I immediately follow up with The Fountainhead.
My first memory of reading a series of books that captivated me was when I was eight. My mother was in the hospital for an extended time, and I could neither visit her because of my age nor talk about it because it was breast cancer. My aunt came to help my father take care of us and visit my mother, but I had expanses of time alone. I looked forward to every Friday, when I could get a Nancy Drew mystery from the library and a tootsie roll pop to enjoy while I read. I had a blanket fort under a spare cot, and with a pillow and flashlight, I would read those books cover to cover, undisturbed.
I continued to like reading books without interruption. I remember traveling on my first job and bringing along Stephen King’s The Stand. As soon as I returned to my hotel room from my conference on the first day, I propped myself up in bed and started reading, not stopping until I got a wake-up call the next morning. It was all I could do to attend the sessions that I couldn’t in good conscience blow off before returning to finish the book the next night. Interestingly enough, my first job was with The Centers for Disease Control, and the conference was about managing pandemics to keep books like The Stand fiction.
More recently, at my local library, the lovely cover of The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo caught my eye. I had heard of neither the author nor the book, but I checked it out anyway. Reading it outdoors under the hot, late summer Florida sun, I lost track of time immersed in the story of Cuba’s thirty-year revolution told by an old woman sequestered during a hurricane with strangers in a decaying government-occupied mansion.
I had always preferred the heft of a book in my hands until I began driving eight hours roundtrip every few weeks to see my ailing mother-in-law. I rediscovered the pure joy of being on the receiving end of storytelling with audiobooks, starting with Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Its 166-person cast set a record, and with headline voices such as Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, and Bradley Whitford, I could barely turn it off when I reached my driving destination.
And speaking of David Sedaris, he is still my first choice in driving “music.” In the car by myself, Sedaris is better than caffeine to keep me alert and to allow me to throw my head back in unabashed laughter at his extraordinary descriptions of ordinary life. I prefer his later works, such as Calypso and Exploring Diabetes with Owls. With the mellowing factor of his now long-time partner, his wit is still delightfully self-effacing, but tempered with a greater acceptance of others.
More serious books, such as The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, which were among my first selections to facilitate a book club, required an actual book in hand that I could highlight and bookmark passages to illustrate character revelations and literary devices. These I read in my office chair, which fits me perfectly and lets me take a visual break by looking out the window. There is a hedge of ixora along my office window, and if I look above it I see the gumbo limbo tree and the Florida sky. If I look underneath the hedge, I’m often rewarded by seeing rabbits, snakes, or cardinals. I am first and foremost a visual learner, even when I enjoy the entertainment of being an active listener to a good story.
I am 16 years old reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace by flashlight, not falling asleep until dawn. I do this night after night after seeing Alien, my first horror film. Memories of the slimy alien bursting from John Hurt’s chest faded before I could finish the book. I still haven’t finished it.
It’s the summer after my senior year in high school, and I am in the backseat of my family’s rental car reading Crown in Candlelight by Rosemary Hawley Jarman, which I had purchased in a small bookshop in Dunoon, Scotland. As we drive across the Scottish moors, my father barks at me from the driver’s seat that I should be looking at the scenery instead of reading. I look out the window: sheep, grass, rocks. Then back to torchlit castles and romance.
I am lying on a chaise lounge wrapped in a luxurious white cotton robe, looking past my bare feet to the pristine white beach and the sea beyond. I am on my honeymoon at Caneel Bay in St. John, and the newly released Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, all five pounds of it, is sitting on my lap. A pina colada sweats on the table next to me, and my new husband lounges beside me. I am perfectly content.
I am sitting on a cushy leather sofa in front of a small peat fire at a friend’s cottage in County Clare, Ireland. I have plucked a book off her shelf: Irish Puddings, Tarts, Crumbles, and Fools by Margaret Johnson. I read this cover to cover while drinking hot tea with milk and savoring fresh baked scones with raspberry jam and clotted cream. The late afternoon sun slants through the window, and I can hear the neighbor’s cows lowing in the field. Heaven.
My husband and I are sipping iced coffees and listening to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs in our pickup truck as we haul our camper across the country’s midline, imagining post-World War I England in all of its cool, damp propriety as we endure the melting heat and tedium of endless Iowa cornfields.
Some days, I think I need nothing more in life than a book.
When all of life is geared to social isolation in these Covid-19 times, a book feels friendly and brings all sorts of people near enough to know what they are thinking, perhaps suffering, or even what is happening in their cells.
With a book, I can travel to faraway places and see the great wonders of the world. A book can bring humorous episodes to life and wring laughter and or tears from my still place.
Looking at a book, I can appreciate the thought and work that it took to gift me with this special edition.
I can mark and underline a book’s words as I study the messages and clues that it holds about life and love and loss and beauty and moments that scatter in haste across the years of my life.
Books are not dictators, and if one does not pull me in, I can close the covers and not look back, or I can hurry to the final page without guilt.
Books are my friends, my decorations, my weight to carry wherever I go. Suitcases bulge on long trips with just a few extras, just in case.
Sometimes I think I need nothing more than a book, but that thought is not true. I need so much more. I want much more, but I know that books are my passion.
© 2021 by Lorelei Cheung, Mary Axiotis, Holly Peterson, Shayne Johnson, Yolonda Nicely, Barb Galvin, Lynn Hays, Lisa Colburn, and Mary Mason, respectively.