Among my most vivid memories from growing up are those of being a (pre-)teenager and spending lazy summer weeks in Vermont with my grandmother at her “chalet.” Deep in the woods, at the end of a dirt road, where only two tv channels came through from Boston and the internet was but a twinkle, my brother and I spent our days eating and reading and napping and playing epic Monopoly games and watching old movies on badly recorded VHSs. Sometimes we’d head to the nearest town for a sit-down lunch, but mostly we went on walks and breathed the fresh air and ate (my appetite, from all the fresh air, was gigantic) and sat on the deck with outdated magazines and tattered mass market paperbacks.
Every year, beginning when I was 12 (maybe earlier), I read Jaws and Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride during those weeks. The books “lived” at the chalet, and I never took them with me when we packed up to go. I had no personal collection of books to speak of at home—maybe a handful of Baby Sitters Clubs and Sweet Valley Highs—nor did it occur to me that I should start one. But each year I looked forward to that opening scene, when the shark takes down the beautiful young party girl, and I looked forward to the trio of women caught up in the mystery of Zenia. I looked forward to those books the way I now look forward to asparagus in June and tomatoes in August: they were seasonal, inherently bound to their overflowing bookshelf in the middle of nowhere and endless summer days.
Though the books remained the same, each year I returned a new person—or a continuing evolution of the person I was becoming—and so each year, the books hooked me differently. I know those books inside out now; they are part of my internal landscape.
My parents sold the chalet yesterday, and I’ve inherited a few of its possessions. The books, however, are long gone. I do have a copy of The Robber Bride on my shelves, though I can’t remember where it came from, and it’s fair to say I outgrew Jaws (though the movie remains a favorite—“Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women”) right around the time I bought my first volume of poetry. Still, sometimes I wish I had that crumbling paperback, if only to hold its mustiness near my nose and remember how thrilling the book seemed to my pre-teen self.
Books, as you are all likely aware, are my thing. I read. A lot. But as I’ve plowed into my 20s and 30s, I’ve mostly abandoned the habit of re-reading. Partly this is career-driven (to be a good writer, you must be a good reader, which has translated in my head to being a broad reader), and partly it’s personal (there are so many books out there to get to!).
But something shifted this year and a nostalgia has risen in me. (Geez, am I turning 40 soon? Eeep!) Surely my to-read pile continues to grow. But here I am, at my bookshelves, plucking out tomes I haven’t read in ages. Practical Magic. Bluets. Anne Sexton’s Complete Poems. On Writing. The Robber Bride.
In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose writes, “We all begin as close readers. Even before we learn to read, the process of being read aloud to, and of listening, is one in which we are taking in one word after another, one phrase at a time, in which we are paying attention to whatever each word or phrase is transmitting. Word by word is how we learn to hear and then read, which seems only fitting, because it is how the books we are reading were written in the first place.” [emphasis mine]
I think of my two kids, who never seem to tire of Bus Stops or Where the Wild Things Are or Elmo’s Magic Shoes. Certainly I’ve said to my husband, “If I have to read The Story of Babar one more time I’m going to explode!” But there’s something comforting in the familiarity of their choices too. One night my oldest might ask why Babar is sad when his mother is shot by the hunter, the next he might ask when we can make delicious cakes like the ones Babar buys his visiting cousins. As we pore through Bus Stops with my youngest, we might notice all the broken down cars or we might make up stories about the various people. There are layers and layers and layers and even more layers to every story, no matter how simple the narrative.
Prose goes on to write, “We finish a book and return to it years later to see what we might have missed, or the ways in which time and age have affected our understanding.” I mentioned in my most recent newsletter that I’m currently re-reading Alice Walker’s Temple of My Familiar. I first read it in my early 20s, fresh out of undergrad, in my first “adult” apartment. Reading it now brings back some of those memories (Greta the cat still so young and feisty; my enormous antique Ethan Allen desk wedged into the kitchen; stretched out reading on my lumpy futon mattress with my feet stuck between the radiator slats for warmth)—I read for feminism in those days, ranging broadly over the female experience, seeking ways in which I might free myself from the staid expectations of marriage and children, trying to grasp what it meant to be a woman in a patriarchal world.
I read the book now as a wife and mother, having come to those roles on my own terms, and I read the book as a writer—a life I still hadn’t dreamed possible the first time around—and I notice it’s partially epistolary form, and that it is partly an oral history, something directly related to the racial realities the book explicates. I see Walker’s portrayal of the complexity of the Black experience in a new light, especially given current events, and I see that concern over the fate of the earth is not a new concern. These are fights that people have been fighting for a long, long time.
It seems, even to me, who makes a life from words, amazing that a book is written word by word, phrase by phrase. But it is truly that simple, and in that simplicity lies the complexity of story. Each read allows for a new layer, a new depth, to be revealed. Each book contains a multitude of stories. The trick is to slow down and allow them to unfold.
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