I recently read a book that caused me to examine my reading life from the beginning 'till now. Have you ever done that?
For me, "books" started at an early age. My parents read us stories before bed and took us to the library to look for books. But “reading” started while sitting in a circle in my first grade class. We were in a reading group called The Clifford's because one or two kids in the group had red hair and we all agreed Clifford books were completely awesome. Little did they know I was Emily Elizabeth. I had a huge Golden retriever who was red, thanks to rust in the water that came from our garage spigot. It was my little secret.
The Cliffords were not the highest reading group (that was the Tiger Paws), but we weren’t the lowest either. We were six and couldn’t read yet, but ask anyone in the class and they knew which were the highest and lowest groups.
Second grade is where my love of reading started. My teacher, Mrs. Kozman, had a beautifully organized classroom full of wonderful books. I don’t remember specific books I read there, but for the first time, reading wasn’t too much work to be fun. Sometimes I get a whiff of a glossy scholastic paperback and it brings me back to that classroom with Mrs. Kozman’s sweet voice and nurturing spirit.
After that year, I came across books I loved, but more that I didn’t. I remember doing fun projects on books like Trouble River and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, but books took a backseat to friends and socializing. For fun, I mostly read The Baby-Sitter’s Club books because I was a girl in the late 80’s and that’s what every one of us did.
Most of my high school reading was assigned. I wanted to like each book, but they didn't interest me too much. I've seen conflicting stats about this, but most seem to agree that after high school, people rarely revisit the classics on their own. Maybe that's why we are inundated with books out of our reach during our teen years. If we aren't introduced to them in high school, we may never encounter them.
Senior year, I had Mrs. Winegarten. Sitting in her room was like I’d bought a ticket to the theatre. She smiled with her whole face and when she talked about books or writing, her voice felt like a hug. One day, I admitted I hadn’t ever seen Dead Poet’s Society and she said, “What are you doing this evening?” Of course I didn’t go to my teacher’s house to watch a movie, but it also didn’t seem like she was joking.
In college, I decided I wanted to teach theatre and knew having another subject would make it easier to get a job. English seemed like a good match. I imagined I’d see some of the same books in both disciplines and I was right. I read a lot in college. Most of what I read I liked or even loved. And, except for that stupid red wheelbarrow poem, I could see the merit in the books that weren’t my taste.
When I graduated, I got a job teaching English, so I was right about having two subjects. My reading during that time was shamefully hurrying through books I felt I should have read before but hadn’t and now I had to teach them. I often said things like, “I’m pretty sure I read this in high school,” knowing full well that was an outright lie. A person who still remembers the name and level of her first reading group didn’t read a classic piece of literature and just forget.
I went on to teach theatre which means I read nothing but plays for ten years. If it was new, I read it. If it had a clever title, I read it. If it was a classic, I read it. If it had a whole bunch of girls in the cast, I definitely read it. I read plays all year round. I recommended plays to other directors with specific casting challenges. I talked to my husband all the time about the plays I read. Just ask him.
During this time, another genre of books entered my life. Non-fiction books to help me be a better (fill in the blank): pregnant person, wife, mom, runner, disciple, gardener, cook, friend, etc. I learned some from these books, but mostly I learned I didn’t really know anything. These books always left me feeling defeated because they were too boring to finish. Because they were unfinished, I couldn’t part with them which meant I had a bookshelf full of books that made me feel like a quitter.
And then I came across a book that changed me. It was called The Boy Next Door by Meg Cabot. Not what you expected right? It's a book in which the story is told in a series of emails and it was funniest book I’d ever read. It wasn’t about how to nurse a newborn, not a classic work of literature, and not a play. I realized I could read books that weren’t assigned to me or taught by me, and this realization brought me freedom. I basked in my reading glory. I listened to audiobooks in the car. I read any chance I got. I burned through everything written by Meg Cabot, Sophie Kinsella, and Emily Giffin. It was exhilarating. Then I had my second kid, and third and fourth so I basically went seven years without sleeping through the night.
I needed something to jumpstart my reading, so I googled Podcasts about books. The first thing to pop up was one called Overdue with Andrew Cunningham and Craig Getting. Their tagline is "Overdue is about the books you’ve been meaning to read". Even the most avid reader has a list of books they are embarrassed to admit they've never read. I love this podcast because it’s two guys I could imagine being friends with talking about books. One day, as I listened, I didn’t turn it off right away and my phone went on to another similar podcast called What Should I Read Next? with Anne Bogel, and I had the uncanny feeling I was meeting a much more well-read version of myself for the first time. In addition to her podcast, she has a blog called The Modern Mrs. Darcy. If you don't listen or follow her, I highly recommend subscribing. We're busy people. We all probably have a story about walking into the library blind and finding the perfect book, but usually, a little input helps us choose books worth our time. Anne Bogel has written a couple of books. One came out on September 4th called I’d Rather Be Reading which happens to be the book that prompted this whole exercise.
What Should I Read Next shaped my reading life. I made a To Be Read list, I visited independent booksellers, I started keeping track of the books I read, and last year I read 102 books. I know people who read more than that each year, but it was an accomplishment for me. I loved this journey. I read children’s books, YA, historical fiction, nonfiction, humor, theology, mysteries, and so much more. I learned it's ok to put down a book without guilt if it's not for me. I also learned there are books I need to avoid because I'm too sensitive. I learned there are books I loved as a young adult I can't handle now that I'm a parent. But mostly, I learned that reading me is a much happier me.
I didn’t write this to make you feel bad about your reading or to even encourage you to read more. I just found it to be a worthwhile exercise to see patterns or highs and lows in my reading.
I dare you to take a few minutes and think through your reading life. What were the best times? Who encouraged you? What caused the times when reading fell flat? What books do you typically make time for and when was the last time you read one? If you're at a loss, try I'd Rather be Reading. It'll remind you of when you fell in love with reading or hopefully make you fall in love for the first time.
Or not. No pressure.