Thursday, May 25, 2006

Childhood Reading

Dorothy's recent post about Colette's childhood reading got me to thinking about my childhood reading. I always get envious when I read passages of authors who talk about the magic of their parents' bookshelves or about how the family sat around the dinner table talking about literature.   My family's bookshelf contained a set of Funk and Wagnall's Encyclopedias, a set of children's books anthologies, The Wizard of Oz and two Dr. Seuss books, Ella's favorite, Green Eggs and Ham which belonged to my sister, and The Cat in the Hat which belonged to me.   The encyclopedias only got used for school reports. I rarely opened the anthologies because they were illustrated and some of the pictures scared me like the one of a stately Victorian family in a rowboat. There is a little girl my age dreamily dragging her hand through the water, and not far away is a very hungry alligator. The illustration terrified me because I knew what was going to happen to the little girl and I couldn't bear it. I don't even know what story it was attached to, I didn't want to know. Likewise I did not read The Wizard of Oz because it had scary pictures in it too. And I rarely read The Cat in the Hat because I was afraid of The Cat and the chaos he caused. And I thought Green Eggs and Ham was stupid. Not only did it belong to my little sister, I didn't like ham and who in their right mind would eat green eggs? They had to be rotten and rotten eggs make you sick. I did not like being sick.   My Dad was, and remains, a non-reader. The only thing I ever saw him read was the newspaper. My Mom read, but she read Harlequin Romances (now she is an avid mystery reader) and kept them hidden away in a box underneath the bed in her and my Dad's bedroom. When I was about 10 or so and home alone, I'd sneak in and look for the "dirty parts" which were quite tame by today's standards.   I was, however, always encouraged by both my parents to read. And so it came to pass that both my sister and I each had a small bookcase in our respective bedrooms that we filled with books received as gifts or paid for with allowance money.   Most of the books I read in my childhood were books like Charlotte's Web, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Where the Red Fern Grows, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, The Black Stallion series, The Great Brain, Nancy Drew, Trixie Beldon, and every single Little House on the Prairie book. When I went ga-ga over unicorns I read A Swiftly Tilting Planet which gradually lead me into science fiction and fantasy and the Lord of the Rings. My parents didn't pay attention to what I read and so I was able to venture into teenage sex books like Judy Blume's Forever without either of them raising an eyebrow. I was also able to read "grown-up" books like Watership Down and Andromeda Strain and Brave New World. I didn't always understand what was going on and sometimes they freaked me out a little, but I enjoyed them nonetheless.   Not until high school did I read any traditional literary classics. And I loved them.   Talk of books in my house was only ever one of three kinds. My sister and I would talk about books and allow the other to borrow under threat of death if the book was hurt in any way or unreturned. Or my Mom would see me reading a book and tell me how bad it was. Like the time I was in high school and reading Wuthering Heights and enjoying it very much. She recalled that she had read it in high school and complained it was boring and she felt sorry I had to read it. The third kind of book talk usually centered around my parents, generally my Mom, complaining that I spent all of my money on books and that I read too much. That didn't stop me though and eventually I'd shoot back in that snotty way of teenagers that it was her and Dad's fault since they encouraged me to read so much when I was a kid.   And so my childhood reading was very much a hodge-podge, taking me in the direction of whatever sounded most interesting at the time. In some ways that was good, my reading was my own and it was nothing but pleasurable without any kind of pressure. No one ever told me I couldn't read a book because of its content, because I wasn't old enough, because it was too hard for me. And so my childhood laid the groundwork for being a reader who likes to read widely and who is not afraid of giving any book a try.   Still, when I read passages like the one by Colette that Dorothy posted, I can't help but wish I had had the gentle guidance of an adult over my childhood reading; an adult who would have placed Little Women in my hands one lazy summer day and then sat with me when I was finished and asked me what I thought of it, concluding "If you liked that, you'll really like this one!" and then sending me off to sit in the shade of a tree with Jane Eyre.