The Pleasures Of The Reading Life: Beginning Book Girl
"Girl Reading in a Landscape" by Ada Thilen
Before I was ever born, my mother read to me. While in her womb, she would read from classics by Beatrix Potter, A.A. Milne, and, of course, one of her favorite books Anne of Green Gables. Is it any wonder then that I was a born reader? For as long as I can remember, I have adored books. Before I could read them on my own, my mother would read to me. I would sit in her lap and look at the pictures as she read. Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, The Velveteen Rabbit, Blueberries for Sal, Sylvester and the Magic Pebble . . . the list goes on. But it did not take long for me to want to read on my very own. I pretended to read from what words I had heard her say aloud and then I would make up the rest that I couldn't remember. As I followed along to her reading, I began to learn words and the beauty of language. From Beatrix Potter alone I discovered words like soporific, marrows, terrace, or paduasoy. It was glorious to be able to add new words to my vocabulary by simply asking my mother what a word meant or, when I got old enough, to look their meanings up in a dictionary. Words became expansive and opened my horizons that the world was bigger and filled with more magic than I could even begin to imagine. Books were portals to new and amazing places for me: whether that was the Boston of Johnny Tremain or the Narnia of Aslan.
I was formed and shaped by story. I treasured books, particularly those given to me as presents. My great-Aunt Annie was a wonderful book giver and understood how delighted I'd be whenever I got one (even more than in my receiving toys). She, who had been a teacher, saw in me a desire to devour books whenever I got my hands on one. And she, like my mother, never stopped me from attempting to read a book because they thought it might be too difficult for me. They saw that I would read and, either put the book back on the shelf, or I would pull the dictionary down as well and have it there on the floor beside me as I read. She was the one who filled my childhood bookshelves with classics like A Child's Garden of Verses, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, Grimm's Fairy Tales, and Robinson Crusoe. My days and especially my summers were taken up with books. As a child who was often lonely, the characters who inhabited their pages became my constant companions and I knew Wilbur the Pig, Pippi Longstocking, Anne Shirley, Laura Ingalls, Claudia Kincaid, Harriet the Spy, and The Great Brain as well, if not better, than the kids in our neighborhood. I was a child of books who never lost that deep, abiding love for reading and literature.
I have written before how I have learned courage from Lucy Pevensie or Meg Murry, sacrificial friendship from Charlotte the Spider or Frodo and Sam. I acquired the ability to see the beauty in the world through Anne Shirley or Mary Lennox. I connected with the power of story through Sara Crewes telling of tales in A Little Princess or from Wendy in Peter Pan. I gained an appreciation of nature and of animals through works by E.B. White or Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Books guided me along the path as if I were Christian making my way to the Celestial City in Pilgrim's Progress. I spent time in places I could only dream of Lilliput, Narnia, the Shire, Wonderland, Neverland, Oz, B-612, or under the house with the tiny Borrowers.
And I have nurtured and nourished this love of books in my own sons. Grateful for a mother who read to me and exposed me to great works, I have done the same. My younger son and I are in the midst of our summer book, The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. As I read to him, my young son leans his head against my chest, he listens and I can tell he is reading along silently to my reading aloud.
Jody moved a stone that was matching its corners against his sharp ribs and burrowed a little, hollowing himself a nest for his hips and shoulders. A shaft of sunlight, warm and thin like a patchwork quilt, lay across his body. He watched the flutter-mill indolently, sunk in the sand and the sunlight. The movement was hypnotic. His eyelids fluttered with the palm-leaf paddles. Drops of silver slipping from the wheel blurred together like the tail of a shooting star. The water made a sound like kittens lapping. A rain frog sang a moment and then was still. There was an instant when the boy hung at the edge of a high bank made of the soft fluff of broom-sage, and the rain frog and the starry dripping of the flutter-mill hung with him. Instead of falling over the edge, he sank into the softness. The blue, white-tufted sky closed over him. He slept.
After I read that passage, my son looked up at me and smiled. "That was so beautiful," he said, "and I could see it all so clearly." He was falling in love with the languidness of the language and with the beauty of Rawlings' descriptions. He's already a boy who feels at home in nature so I chose this book because I knew he would connect with young Jody in it. He would hear the slow-moving paragraphs that are descriptions and appreciate the world they are painting with words. It was the same with My Side of the Mountain. And, just like Where The Red Fern Grows, he would hold the beauty and bear the sorrow that the story contains. He would, once again, rediscover the power of words and reading.
It is with this that I came to Sarah Clarkson's Book Girl and, while I understand that from its title I am not her target audience, I have never, ever let that dissuade me from reading a book (not even when a well-meaning librarian asked me if I was sure I wanted to check out A Little Princess, thinking a ten-year-old boy would not be interested in what she thought of as a girl's book. I did not heed her words and loved the book and Sara Crewes). I could not help but connect with the first sentence of the introduction, "My Mother swears she read to me while I was still in the womb."
When one is bewitched by the magic of words, the loveliness of language, and the power of imagery, we desperately want to share that with others; in particular our own children. Just as her mother did with her, Sarah, a new mother herself now, wants to pass her love of reading on to her own daughter. As she writes of her hope to give her daughter "the beauty of the world and the strength to bear its sorrow, and knew that one of the best ways to do that was through the gift of the reading life."
The reading life is a precious gift and one that I so wish all parents had and passed on to their children. Why? Because reading offers the gifts "of learning and wonder, of hope renewed, of the capacity to ponder, of the will to act . . ." This brought to my mind a quote from the naturalist Rachel Carson, who writes in The Sense of Wonder:
A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructable that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year. . .
While there is no good fairy to bestow this wish, there are books. In my own life, books are the antidote and have supplied me with years of discovering and rediscovering wonder and awe and beauty and excitement, so much so that it transfers to the natural world for me. Both my attention to words and reading and to the natural world began in the explorations of childhood. I learned through both to pay attention, to notice and see what so many overlooked because they did not pause to focus and truly spend time looking at what was before and around them.
As a parent, I, like Sarah Clarkson, wish over my own children, "I want your heart to be stocked with beauty." Because the world, or at least our society and culture, can be cruel and chaotic. It can feel as overwhelming as a raging sea. Yet I have found an anchor-hold in the power of stories to ground and guide me over the years and, like Sarah, have realized that the world can be "wondrously good." Who would not want that for their child? To let their children know that they are not alone in this world, that what they are feeling or struggling with have been faced and conquered by authors in their own lives and stories. That they can, like myself, see bravery in the smallness of Hobbits or in the weaknesses of Meg Murry.
The reading life is a rich life and should be celebrated. Book Girl is just such a celebration and a very welcome one, indeed. In the introduction, Clarkson writes, "This book is about the joy and dance of women reading, an invitation to that wise laughter, to the grace known by all the book girls of the world who live by the delighted conviction that reading is a vital ingredient in a woman's full engagement with her faith, her creativity, and her capacity to grow in knowledge and love throughout each season of her life." Though not a woman, I have found this to be true in my own life. Reading has opened me up in ways that I cannot imagine being who I am without having read the books I've read. They have answered questions and, better yet, offered me greater questions and to rest in not always knowing or having to have answers. Books share in our dreams and give us new ones. They offer solace and comfort. They offer companionship during loneliness. They offer adventure and new horizons when I cannot afford to leave our own town.
My house is crammed full of books. There are bookshelves everywhere and even where there are not shelves, there are books. I have learned the rhythm of reading and seen how reading is a spiritual act. Reading not only fiction and nonfiction but theology, poetry, essays, and plays. I read with a cup of coffee or tea by side. I read in bed, on the sofa or in a comfy chair, outside in the fork of a great oak's roots, or by a stream or creek. Rainy days are reading days. As are sunny days, snowy days, cloudy days . . . There are at least three books in my car because I never know when I am going to be somewhere and need a book handy. I make time to read. In the quiet of the early morning, along with reading a devotional and my Bible, I read poetry. My days also end with reading. Sitting in bed, I read before I switch off the light. I read some of whatever I happen to be reading, along with a Psalm and a poem. I like to bookend my days with beauty.
Avid readers, book people are those who understand what Gustave Flaubert means when he writes, "Do not read, as children do, to amuse yourself, or like the ambitious, for the purpose of instruction. No, read in order to live." Yes, one can be amused or learn from books, but book people read because reading is so very much a part of their lives. Great literature lays life bare before us. We read and are challenged and are confronted by a world and universe that is so much greater than we can even begin to imagine. Reading helps us to see life and new ways to live life. In Book Girl, I see a kindred spirit in Sarah Clarkson.
So I cannot wait to spend time in the company of another book person, Sarah Clarkson, as I grab myself a cup of coffee (or tea) and find a comfy place to inhabit the pages of Book Girl.
Sarah Clarkson's website: