Through the Reading Glass III

Adventures! Yes, by my mid-teens (as I mention in my previous post), I was eager to experience real adventure … and not just as part of my reading life! After both my sophomore and junior years of high school, I had opportunity to spend the summer months in Winona Lake, Indiana. Working in food service (cafeteria, soda fountain, etc.), living in an ancient clapboard-sided “hotel,” getting around town by foot − these were all acceptable trade-offs for the “freedom.” (What were my parents thinking?!)

2013-11-14_1751Early in the first summer, I checked out the local library and found it terribly deficient. As a result, I focused more on reading and writing poetry during my off-hours, though I admit those hours were minimal due to so many other distractions (social gatherings, the lake that constantly beckoned me away, etc.) Still, these brief periods of actual independence were a valuable maturing experience. Being on my own, I learned that absence does make the heart grow fonder. From afar, my once-fuddy-duddy parents suddenly seemed wiser! Go figure.

When I returned home, my reading choices started to mature. As never before, I found pleasure in Shakespeare (even outside the classroom). I did have an excellent Drama instructor whose love for Shakespeare was contagious.

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When I discovered Mutiny on the Bounty, I was instantly spellbound. (I hadn’t viewed the 1962 movie with Marlon Brando, though I may have seen the 1935 version with Clark Gable.) My initial exposure came through the novel by Nordhoff and Hall. Such a tale … never having experienced the ocean for myself, reading about it and suffering alongside Fletcher Christian was high adventure indeed! I must have read the book a dozen times.

After Bounty, I devoured The Count of Monte Cristo. At the time, I read it as a romance, completely sympathetic to the “plight” of Edmond Dantès. Today, I’ve less patience with Edmond, realizing his desire for vengeance blinded him badly; instead of gaining wisdom from his suffering and learning forgiveness, he inflicted more pain. He should have known better.

Monte Cristo introduced me to a fictionalized Napoleon (apart from the man of history I’d studied in History classes). I fell in love with this daring short man! The retelling of his love for Desirée became another favorite. With typical teenage angst, I returned often to this account of star-crossed lovers, living all of it in my imagination.

Star-crossed lovers appeared to be a recurring theme for me:  Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Emma, all delivered their romantic shots in the arm and earned my readership of their other works. But no Steinbeck, no Pasternak, no Ayn Rand — other people were reading those! Edith Wharton, Chekhov, more Dumas, much of Poe, yes, yes, yes and yes! I’m also embarrassed to admit I burned through many a volume of Grace Livingston Hill (conveniently available at our church library). The books eventually gave me a strong distaste for formulaic, cardboard-character narratives.

My memory tells me no one (except me) was reading Gone With the Wind in those days. I hardly believe it! What teen girl would have dared ignore it? And despite all my readings of the book, when I eventually saw the movie (my first year of college), the faces of Gable and Leigh were almost identical to the images already fixed in my mind’s eye!

What to conclude at this point of how (and why) my reading habits influence(d) me as both reader and writer? I had yet to imbibe from the deeper wealth of C. S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien. And if I’d read one story by Flannery O’Connor before high school graduation, the impact was minimal. Yet, these are the writers I most admire today.

What this three-day reminiscence confirms to me is how my interests today are unquestionably a reflection of the early reading habits I developed. I was never intimidated by the size of a book; in fact, I often preferred thick books where a story could be elegantly laid out in strands of rich tapestry and characters could be slowly revealed through subtle shading and intimate details.

Even as I’ve added choice authors in adulthood, I also observe that some of my early favorite authors are worthy of re-reads today.

One thing is for sure:  given my lifelong immersion in both adventure and fancy (with a dash of romance mixed in), I crave being ushered into one magical world or another! The promise of another Narnia or Middle-earth fuels anticipation, yet I acknowledge the rarity of any world containing nearly the beauty of those … unless …!

Renée