At the rather ripe age of fifty-seven I am learning to read the books that I want to read. That means I’m looking at all kinds of options, considering what others have to say about these books and making little scribbled lists of titles and authors. At one time I wanted to be an English Literature teacher but I felt inadequate despite having a degree in the subject. I felt I should know more than I thought I knew. I had not read every possible classic book. How could I possibly teach the subject with confidence?
Instead, I went into elementary education and taught the very young. No regrets on having taken that career choice. If anything I feel privileged to have been trusted with the education of those beautiful little people and knowing it was a blessing to be the one who opened up the story books and lead them into the stories. I also taught the skill of learning how to decode language, expressive oral and written skills, reflection and appreciation skills involving art, drama and music. I never had this focus on literature myself as a child at school but had picked up on many of these things through various life experiences as they came along. Better late than never. Now I need to guide myself in to the land of books and find the gems for myself.
My love of a good dramatic tale probably comes from the emphasis on Bible Stories that I experienced as a little child. I didn’t have exposure to any other literature really except for the basic little readers at my one room school. Few and far between, books were not readily available to me. When my oldest brother married a young schoolteacher my luck changed and she bought me some books for Christmas or my birthday. I remember the texture, smell, art and comfort of these books so well. We didn’t have a library at the school at all so these books were my treasures at home.
In high school books were more readily available and we bought what was required. Few books were lent for some reason. There was a small library available to us but the librarian was a tiny, well dressed character in very high heels who probably meant well but spent most of her time just chatting and laughing with us. I rarely took out any books from her as it was so distracting and social as a classroom.
I did have the very good fortune of being allowed to often catch a ride downtown with another teacher who dropped me off at the city library to spend evenings while I waited for my Dad to get off from his shift at the factory and pick me up at 11pm. We lived thirty minutes out-of-town on a farm and this was the only available library. I am amazed now to think that my parents allowed this to happen. I spent some of that evening at my sister’s apartment but most of the evening I was at the library. My parents had this all worked out with the teachers who had taken an interest in me at the time and now I look back on this with gratitude. I guess they knew what they were doing after all.
I walked around the library trying to figure out how to find the books on my own and soon got the hang of it. Overwhelmed by the selection I would pick a few and read bits and pieces that were helpful to any assignments I was working on. I would read what others had underlined, starred or made written comments on in the margins. Stacks of books left on the tables by other readers were interesting to me as I wondered why they had been selected and others were left on the shelves. A great deal of time in the library was spent watching the people around me. I was intrigued by their looks, manner and reading habits. It was my first experience with observing individuals who might have been homeless and used the library as a sanctuary for part of their day. I spent time reading the back issues of magazines and newspapers. I loved seeing the huge asparagus ferns hanging in the stairwell and the fun of buying a snack at the tiny lunch counter in the basement of the building. I was generally soaking it all up. I worked and read there as I didn’t have a library card to take the books out. When I did need a book for whatever reason I must have used my sister’s card.
When I was in university and finally more adept in finding my way around the campus library I would spend entire days there. Taking armfuls of books home, I was in my glory. I just loved having bags of them to look at piled up on my desk. With the various book lists and required readings of each course I didn’t really have any choices to make on my own. I was still often relying on the underlined passages and comments made by others as I prepared my essays. Picking and choosing, discarding the irrelevant, I started making my own insights about literature. Overwhelming, required reading lead to the completion of my degree. Honestly, some of it was not my cup of tea.
A year of teacher training later I was allowed my own classroom and I was ready for my own interests and creativity to develop . It all had been preparation for giving very young children the opportunity to learn to read. I had found my own way with literature and language and was ready and able to let others follow my lead.
Over the years, I read a great deal. Often I read for comfort and other times I read for information. With more course work came more reading for my career. The big treat for me was to go to used bookstores and load the car up with piles of books to enjoy during school holidays. Yard sales bulked up my supply. Oddly enough, I rarely found myself using the community library unless it was to take my son there. I wanted to have my own books to read, pile up on my desk and stack on the floor and I still feel that way. More than likely it will always be that way.
I will try to get back to going to the library even if it is just to soak up the atmosphere again. I will continue to watch what other’s are reading, look up best-loved book lists on the internet, consider the most important idea books of all time (yes, I found a book list for that) and hang out at fancy and used bookstores just for the thrill of the hunt for the next great book for my own collection. Years ago all I had was the fantastic, dramatic Bible Stories, some new books from my sister-in-law, a few wonderful poems and passages in a few textbooks and the foresight of my parents and teachers to let me find my way in a library.
Today, finally retired, I can finally focus on whittling down the pile of books I thought I had to read before I could teach highschool English. Maybe I can even find out whatever happened to the little social butterfly highschool librarian I once knew and find out what she would suggest I should read. I bet she’s on Facebook.