For the Love of Novels

My earliest memory of reading was the Little Bear books, although those would hardly be considered novels. My mother would tuck herself into the bottom of the bunk bed with me and make me read to her. She took one side of the hard cover in her hand, and I took the other in my tiny one. I was always so conflicted inside. I wanted to know what happened to Little Bear next, but it was so hard to stumble through the words. If I was good and kept trying, my mother might read the last page of the chapter to me. Then, the book came alive in my mind like a film. After Little Bear came Drummer Hoff, who fired it off, which made me feel that it must be a beautiful thing to wear a tricorn hat and fire cannons at things. Later, it was the Secret Garden in all its haunting mystery, which my mother read to both my sister and I at bedtime.

I received Kirsten, an American Girl doll, the Christmas I was in 3rd grade. She came with a set of seven books about her life in 1850’s Minnesota. Once the Christmas tree was devoid of gifts, she and I climbed the brown trunk of the tree in my front yard and settled down into the y shaped crook that was my favorite. I read her all of her stories, partly out of conviction that her time in that maroon box may have made her forget herself.

By sixth grade, it was impossible to keep me in books any longer. I just read too fast. Elizabeth George Speare’s magical and frightening tales of puritan New England lasted me only a day. I sped through Natalie Babbit’s books, and wished that I could climb Kneenock Rise with the fat dog Alice, too. I fell in love with Anne of red hair and fiery temper and her need for puffed sleeves. Emily, haunted by family tradition in the beautiful New Moon, was next, and so was Valancy’s propensity to shock her miserly mother and the collections of Darks and Penhallows fighting over a jug in A Tangled Web.

In Junior High it was The Hobbit. I was half in love with Gandalf, of all people, despite his age and mostly for his fireworks. I was ready to pack my things and move to Rivendale post haste. I decided that I was going to read the classics – all of them – about this time. Wuthering Heights made me angry at the stupidity of everyone. Around the World in Eighty Days made me dream of balloons and elephants. Kipling secretly made me want to go overboard on an ocean liner. I breathed To Kill a Mocking Bird in eighth grade. Of all the soul shattering scenes in that book, the rabid dog stands out strongest now.

My Aunt Nancy sent us a package for Christmas when I was thirteen. She usually sent us a package, but this year we stripped the gilded paper from a beautiful, hardbound copy of Little Women. I think my mother had designs that we would all read it as a family together, like we did when my sister and I were little. I did not wait for that. I charged through the book and did not stop for months. When I finished savoring the last word on the last page, I would turn to the beginning again: “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.” That book held the universe, from the Pickwick Society to Laurie’s tragic past, to kittens and blancmange for sickness and the importance of gloves. It had croquet, lobster and jam disasters, champagne, parties to which you needed to wear a ball gown, France, and a knight who sneezed and his head fell off. I stylized myself a less-artistic Amy and memorized both the scene where she goes to the ball with Laurie in France, and the one where they are engaged after Beth’s death. My mother made me a present of Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Jack and Jill, An Old Fashioned Girl, and Eight Cousins next, and I worked my way through those as well, continually reading them as I did Little Women.

In high school, I discovered The Lord of the Rings. The Alcott obsession waned, and Tolkien burned instead. I wanted to be Arwen for a long time. I was more than head over heels for Aragorn by then. Then realized that Eowyn was more my style. No waiting at home for me, I wanted to dress like a man and take out the biggest baddie of them all, even if it did put me in a death sleep and meant I was stuck with Faramir. My family took a trip to Yosemite that year to stay in a white tent cabin. There is something so magical about reading Tolkien amid the trees. You could round any path to find the painted door of a hobbit hole in the hillside. Or so it feels.

Today, my passions have diversified. It was Garrison Keillor for a while, his sad tales of Lake Woebegone where desire lurks in the darkness and baseball games and typewriters stand in the light. I devoured Jane Austen, then Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl who could speak to the geese, and Enna who almost consumed herself with fire. Agatha Christie’s shocking morbidity kept me fascinated. Ursula K. LeGuin made me long for other, colder, planets. My current Diana Wynne Jones obsession, the way she entwines ancient mythos with anoraks, pies and laundry, has been interrupted by a Neil Gaiman fixation. This is the worst one yet. He is all over social media, which means that new things from him are never ending, and the fixation can continue unbroken.

How to pick a favorite from all the rest? It is impossible. Favorites change at the drop of a hat, at the changing of the seasons, with age and with experience. It is like picking a favorite child. Still, if I were to pick one it might be Little Women. Alcott was my first obsession. I find myself following the tenets in her books even today. For instance:

I have had a busy day at work sorting out customs paperwork. They did it all wrong while I was on vacation and now things are backed up for miles, in purgatory. My husband and I fought about faucets for the bathroom sink that morning. When you are feeling in a funk, do something nice for someone else and let the good feelings surround you, suggests Alcott. That night, I make dinner and set the table with candles and real, cloth napkins. It doesn’t help completely. That feeling of dissatisfaction still lingers underneath my heart, but it is less than it was before, and it does not grow. The argument has dissolved into the ether.

There is no denying that this book has seeped into the very framework of my ideology and stuck there like muscle on a backbone. I still wish to be those girls sometimes, collected around Beth’s piano for a song or ensconced in the garret with Jo’s inky fingers and askew cap, or having larks with Laurie. I can’t read Little Women anymore. I have memorized too much of it and the scenes no longer play in my head as if I was watching a film. Still, I remember the scenes vividly. I remember the tenets of their lives vividly. I remember the affection, family, tragedy, and even the petty betrayals, and I love them. While not necessarily my flashy, current favorite, the March sisters have certainly stuck with me the longest.

The constant, from Little Bear to Gaiman, is the devouring of new ideas, of the lives of others. Beethoven once wrote, “Oh it would be so lovely to live a thousand lives.” I have lived them in my mind and am all the richer for them. I am a teetotaling college student with a part time desk job. I have a husband, two cats, a mortgage. In my spare time I bake things and do homework. But when I pick up a book, lose myself in the ink on the pages, I am continually becoming.

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