Sunday, September 23, 2012

a (Personal) Brief History of Reading

I was recently reading the latest post on my good friend Michelle’s blog (—and if you’re not reading or following her blog, you need to be. She’s an awesome writer and has many wonderful insights). Her post, I Want to Be the Minority got me thinking about my own history of reading, and I decided that there may be a story there to tell. So here you go…

Let me start by saying that, if you know me, this may be a big surprise.

I love reading. I’ve read hundreds of books. For a short while I worked at a used bookstore, and loved so much about the job. My favorite stores are Barnes & Noble, Powell’s (in Portland, OR), Bookman’s (several locations in AZ), and just about any independent bookstore (especially used bookstores). Between my wife and I, we have 600+ books and are constantly adding to our collection in hopes of someday having our very own “Beauty and the Beast library.”

Most people who know me know all of these things. What most people don’t know is that I used to hate reading. And I don’t just mean when I was a precocious five-year-old who only ever wanted to be playing outside or with my friends or playing video games. I mean that I hated reading all throughout elementary, middle, and even—gasp!—high school. It’s true. Of course every now and then throughout those years I’d come across a book that wasn’t so bad, but for the most part, I didn’t want to have anything to do with books or reading.

When I first learned to read (which my parents taught me how to do before I started kindergarten), the only things I wanted to read were video game manuals and guides. I still remember a special guide I had that covered the first three of the old NES Mega Man games, which I read several times through and through (even the section devoted to Mega Man 1, which I didn’t even own and still have never played).

Through the first several years of elementary school (especially third and fourth grade), all the kids in my class were in a craze of reading Goosebumps (the kids horror series by R. L. Stein). I borrowed one of these books from a classmate and couldn’t get past the third page. It wasn’t that it was a bad book—it’s just that it was a book. As well, in third grade, my teacher gave me a boxed set of the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. I actually took the time to read the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe shortly thereafter (and enjoyed it), but didn’t bother with the rest of the series—even if they were good, they were still books, after all.

Mind you, all along my reading skills were several years ahead of the grade I was in. And I’ve always loved writing—I just didn’t ever want to read.

In high school, I pretty much only read books that were required for class. My junior year I discovered Winnie-the-Pooh and absolutely adored it, but this was a very rare exception. That same year, my Creative Writing teacher asked how I could write without reading, and this question didn’t make sense to me. I didn’t see how the two related (I understand now, of course, but I didn’t at the time).

The first half of my senior year, I read all the books I was required to for English and hated all of them (especially the Odyssey by Homer—ugh!). When we were required to write essays on these books, I got pretty bad scores—mostly 4’s and 5’s out of 9.

Then we got to the Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka.

You’re probably thinking I’m going to say this book turned me around; I loved it; I finally realized what reading was all about.

Nope—quite the opposite, in fact. As much as I hated everything else I’d read that year, I especially hated the Metamorphosis—so much so that I simply couldn’t bring myself to finish reading it. I knew I would struggle with writing the essay on it, but I wasn’t getting good grades on the essays anyways, so why bother? It just wasn’t worth it. I only read—at most—half of the Metamorphosis before tossing it aside. In class, when it came time to write the essay, I was much more nervous than normal and just wanted the awful mess to be over with, assuring myself that I wouldn’t do this again, that I would actually read the next book we were assigned.

But then something miraculous happened: I got an 8 out of 9 on the essay (sorry, Ms. Amundson). Yep: an 8. Ms. Amundson wrote comments on my paper to the effect of: she could tell I was finally grasping this whole essay-writing thing and it was apparent that I actually spent time with the book (ha!).

From then on, I didn’t read anything that was required for school, and saw mostly A’s on all my papers.

Who on Earth would read when they don’t have to?

I took the ACT at the end of my senior year, and got a good enough grade on the English section that I was able to entirely skip the 100-level of English classes in college. My first semester of college, I went straight into a 200-level class, and only went up from there.

This trend continued throughout my first couple years of college—I read almost nothing, despite taking many English classes, as well as several honors classes (which basically operated like weekly book clubs). And I kept getting A’s (or, on rare occasion, high B’s).

But somewhere in there, something happened.

One day, I got into a big fight with the girl I was dating at the time. Anymore, who knows what the fight was about; I certainly don’t remember now. I probably didn’t even really know at the time. I left her house that afternoon, quite upset. But I didn’t want to go home or to another friend’s house or anywhere else that normally would have been a comfort. For some reason, the only thing that sounded like an alright idea was to go to Barnes & Noble. Considering my aversion to reading at the time, I have no idea why this sounded like such a good idea. But I went.

Walking the halls of Barnes & Noble, I didn’t know what I was doing there or what I was looking for. I knew a lot about literary classics (mostly from paying attention and winging it in my classes), so I mostly looked around in that section. I picked up a few books—all ones whose name I had heard at some point or another—and read the descriptions. This actually doesn’t sound too bad…

I honestly don’t even remember if I bought anything that day. But by the time I left, I was feeling much better, and I had a small list of books that I thought I might try to read sometime—mostly classics, though there were also a few random science books on the list as well (every now and again—even to this day—I go through a kick where I suddenly become super nerdy and think I’m into science for a brief spell—it rarely lasts more than a few weeks though).

I don’t mind saying now that that particular girlfriend and I fought quite a bit—which meant that I began to spend more and more time at Barnes & Noble, and slowly began amassing a small collection of books. I even started to not only collect these books, but to actually read them—slowly of course, no more than one or so a month.

At first, I realize now, owning these books made me feel somehow proud and intellectual—even the books I didn’t read, I somehow felt smart just because they were on my shelf. I got better at BS’ing papers for school because (even though I still wasn’t reading any books for school), I understood the concept of books better, the flow of stories, the ways to skim the first couple pages and the last couple pages and get the gist of the story. I began to understand writing styles, which meant I could discuss various forms of writing, as opposed to merely discussing the plots of these books.

(By the way, fair warning: look out, because I’ve gotten quite deft at discussing books I’ve never read, as if I’ve read them. This seems to be a prerequisite for working in a book store. If you ask me straight-up if I’ve actually read a book, I won’t lie to you—but if you don’t ask, I may not volunteer the information.)

Here’s a list of a few of the early books I read that got me more into the idea of reading. I don’t mean to suggest that this will necessarily spark an interest for reading in other non-readers, but I thought it may be worth sharing anyway…

Winnie-the-Pooh and the House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne
The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
Pooh and Philosophers, Pooh and Psychologists, and Pooh and the Millennium, all by John Williams
Inferno by Dante Alighieri (wait…okay, I haven’t actually read all of this yet. But I’ve read quite a bit of it, and I felt really good choosing it and adding it to my shelf all those years ago)
Bono in Conversation With Michka Assayas
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll
Looking for Alaska by John Green (I bought this book completely on a whim just after it came out, and it became the first book I ever read all in one day. Perhaps not surprisingly, it held the title of my very favorite book for several years, before eventually being dethroned by a more recent book by the same author, Paper Towns)
The Giver by Lois Lowry
All Rivers Flow to the Sea by Alison McGhee
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett
Seven Types of Ambiguity by Eliot Pearlman (this book really did a lot for me, but every person I’ve recommended it to hasn’t seemed to care for it, to my surprise)
Dracula by Bram Stoker

Nowadays, you can’t keep me away from books. I’m rarely to be seen anywhere without a book in my hands (even at work, church, school, etc.). I mostly enjoy classics and books that are on their way to becoming classics (i.e. anything by Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, C.S. Lewis, Jose Saramago, etc.), though certainly there are many exceptions to this. And of course there’s anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michael Ende, Kahlil Gibran, and Zoran Zivkovic, none of whom can be overlooked.

I suppose, to be fair, there isn’t necessarily much of a point to me telling this story. Maybe the moral here is that people change in unexpected ways. Maybe it’s that a person’s history can always be a surprise. Who knows?—I just thought it’d be worth sharing, especially for those that know me.

And don’t worry—if I ever talk about any specific book in this blog, I’ll be sure it’s one that I’ve actually read, or else be very clear up front that I haven’t read it.


Michelle Dyer Peterson said...

It was in a bookstore that I first met you. That hadn't occurred to me until just now. How fateful and perfect. :-)

I remember thinking I could write and not read. And I felt the same way -- why waste my time on a book that I wasn't liking? It turned out, I just wasn't reading the *right* books. That makes all the difference. And then I realized how writing and reading go so hand-in-hand, that they are inseparable, and I started to open up to new books just so I can find some sort of influence to my writing. It's amazing where a book can take you.

I still have that list of books you gave me that I absolutely have to read. I haven't forgotten about them. And even though we disagree sometimes (Seven Types of Ambiguity), there are those that we see perfectly eye to eye on (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). So I'm anxious to see what's on there and see where you and I either differ or agree.

I can't remember who said it and I don't even remember how the exact quote goes, but there is a quote that goes something along the lines of: "I wake up every day knowing I will never run out of books to read." It's daunting but also reassuring.

(Oh, and thanks for the shout out by the way!)

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