Lately I’ve been reflecting on the process of personal growth through reading. Let’s start at the very beginning … with this week’s Weekly Geeks:
Think back to the moment when you realized “I am a reader!” What books defined that moment in your life?
I was about 12 or 13 years old. I remember the day I was allowed to stray outside the “juvenile fiction” section of my local library. They gave me a special card that allowed me to borrow selected “grown-up” books. I still enjoyed older juvenile fiction (which today would be called “young adult”). Anyone else have a dog-eared copy of Are you There God? It’s me, Margaret ? But I also read books my mom recommended, like R.F. Delderfield’s To Serve them all my Days. And then I joined a local bookstore’s summer reading contest. I spent most of the summer curled up with a book, even taking Jane Eyre with me to summer camp. I came in second, and received a bookstore gift certificate. Yes, at that point, I knew I was a reader.
A few years later, while on vacation with my family, I read several Shakespearean tragedies — and this was before the days of required summer reading. I’m sure fellow tourists instantly labeled me a geek when they saw me lying on the beach, reading Macbeth. But I didn’t care — I was a reader.
At university I studied Computer Science, and the curriculum was short on humanities. One year I attended summer session, having worked an internship the previous term. I took two courses: Chemistry and World Literature. Spend my summer reading Madame Bovary? No problem — I was a reader.
Just before the birth of my second child, my book group read The Mists of Avalon, a retelling of Arthurian legend from a woman’s point of view. The baby was born before I finished the book, but the nice thing about newborns is that they sleep a lot, at least for the first couple of weeks. And I took very seriously the advice from other mothers, to use nap time to do something nice for yourself. That’s how I finished The Mists of Avalon! Yes, I was still a reader.
Reading has always been a fun leisure activity, and an escape from the daily stress of life. But it has also been a source of inspiration and personal growth. For the past week or so, I’ve been reading A History of Their Own, Volume I, a history of women in Europe from prehistory to the present time. The primary thesis is that gender was the single most important factor in shaping the lives of women — more than education, money, social status, religion, country of origin, etc. I happened on this book at a used book sale, but would never have bought it were it not for a lifetime of reading that shaped my own feminist ideals. I began with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique in the late 1970s. On entering the workforce in the 1980s, I read several books on how to succeed in a man’s world. In the 1990s, books like Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand helped me stop trying to be like a man and instead capitalize on my unique strengths as a woman. I’ve also read quite a bit about how to raise strong and independent daughters. Reading The Mists of Avalon was the start of a related journey, to understand and celebrate the literature by women writers, stories about women with strong female protagonists. Today I’m an avid follower of the Orange Prize (as mentioned in last week’s post), and I collect Virago Modern Classics, “dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works.”
And all because I became a reader, way back at the age of 12. Where will reading take me next? I’m eager to find out …
How about you: when did you know you were a reader? In what ways have you experienced personal growth, thanks to books & reading?