I could have walked the path to the library with my eyes closed: four blocks of sun-faded sidewalk, crumbling in places to gravel that rolled beneath my white Reebocks. Under all shades of skies, muffled and hurrying against the biting winter wind or sweating as summer shimmered over the asphalt road, I took short cuts across the familiar corners and kept a wary watch for my secret terror—dogs. The heavy door opened on a shallow entrance with the police station on the right, where the man leaning against the counter was no doubt reporting all sorts of nefarious goings-on to the gray-permed lady at the front desk. In my small town, one neighbor once called 911 because there was a (harmless) snake on her carport; another threatened to call the police because a rainstorm brought water from our downspouts into her (lower-lying) yard. Big doings.
Climbing the echoing linoleum-clad stairs, my hand trailing the shiny banister, I could already smell the books above. Every time I walked into that room I felt small, dwarfed by the world of knowledge and possibility that waited there. Light flooded in from the towering windows, warming the shorter wooden shelves of children’s books toward the front and filtering down through the imposing stacks in the back. The librarian said hello, unsurprised, and went back to her office. She knew I’d be a while. If I took too long, she would come out to the counter and eye me watchfully. Sometimes she expressed her disapproval if I perused the children’s picture books, even though I was also checking out Jane Eyre and everything Louisa May Alcott ever wrote.
At the vast oak card catalog, penciled list in hand, I pulled out one of the long drawers to rifle through the creamy type-written cards. The cryptic library code, letters and numbers and punctuation marks, beckoned me down the aisles. I gathered a pile of what I was looking for, and sometimes I settled down on the floor (screened from the librarian) to pore over a peeling old volume I had stumbled upon. Sometimes I skim-read an installment of Sweet Valley High, just to see what I was missing (not much).
When the afternoon sun was retreating from the windows, I carried an unsteady armful to the checkout counter. Sometimes I thought the librarian sighed as she sized it up. In a steady rhythmic pattern, she flipped open covers, stamped due dates, and stacked the books. I checked out particularly beloved books repeatedly; they were usually dog-eared and coming loose at the binding, and the librarian sometimes curdled my blood by remarking off-handedly that these were getting old and should be retired. I clutched them to my chest and hurried home, calculating how long the renewal limit could keep them in the safety of my possession and away from her unsentimental inspection.
I was always a reader. And then, somehow, after one degree in English and one in English education, after three years of teaching middle and high school English, after three sweet and time-absorbing babies—I found myself not such a reader anymore. I still read, but it became an occasional treat, rather than a part of the rhythm of my life. I labored slowly through a couple of books a year, or read in spurts when I found a temporary window of time in my days—a baby focused enough, for a while, to keep nursing while I turned pages; or two children napping at the same time while pregnancy provided a reason to spend those hours with my feet up and a book in my hands. I never stopped reading altogether, but the daily habit faded. I gravitated to television when there was time to relax, and my attention span for reading shrank (this is probably unsurprising in a weary mom). One day someone asked me what my hobbies were, and I wondered if I could still honestly claim to be a reader. I felt like I had lost a piece of myself along the way.
I read more again these days; it looks different than it did when I was a girl. I don’t have long afternoons to while away at the library, or quiet evenings to curl up on the sofa after dinner and steadily turn the pages of a book. But I’ve stopped trying to get back to that. Instead, I keep a big stack of books in rotation. I spend five minutes with a novel open in one hand and my morning coffee in the other; I read a page about the Civil War while I’m burping the baby. I take the kindle on the treadmill with me, and switch books every ten minutes to keep my interest. And I’ve found that these patched-together pockets of time are forming a new reading life. I wouldn’t call myself a speedy devourer of books, but I do call myself a reader again.
Here are the books I’ve finished lately:
How She Does It: An everywoman’s guide to breaking old rules, getting creative, and making time for work in your actual, everyday life by Anne Bogel: The central premise is that working professionally and being at home with your kids are no longer mutually exclusive. This short e-book is filled with practical advice and individual examples of women re-imagining their career dreams and their at-home presence to make more room for both. I appreciated that Anne lays out different ways this might look in different phases of life. My main impression: you have to really, really want it because it will be tiring–potentially very worth it, but tiring.
Persuasion by Jane Austen* (re-read): Time has grown my affection for this simple, touching story of enduring love and deepening respect. I can’t pick a favorite film version (I love both this one and this one) and though the plot has a couple of discernible weaknesses, Wentworth and Anne remain powerfully real to me, vulnerable and cautious and true.
My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse: My first Wodehouse read was amusing, charming and sometimes hilarious. He certainly had a gift for the turn of a phrase. But most of all, Jeeves and Wooster made me miss the more well-rounded Bunter and Lord Peter, whom I infinitely prefer.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen* (re-read): I’ve essentially memorized the BBC version I love (to be distinguished from the film version I abhor), but re-reading the text is even more like spending time with an old friend. This time I noticed that where Mr. Collins once bored and exasperated me, he now makes me laugh—which I’m sure is what Austen was doing when she wrote him.
Gemini by Dorothy Dunnett: I loved Dunnett’s writing from the first page of the Lymond Chronicles to this, the last volume of the Niccolo series that follows. I savored it slowly for over a year: the big payoff connecting the two series, and the wistful goodbye to beloved characters after 14 books. If you like dense, elegant writing, intricate plots, and lush historical detail, and have never read these, you will wonder (like I did) where they have been all your life.
Emma by Jane Austen* (re-read): Always my favorite Austen heroine, because she has the most obvious flaws. And it strikes me now as fundamentally a story about love that endures foibles and bears with flaws. Emma is tender with her timid, unintentionally selfish father; the Westons adore their reckless, thoughtless son; the whole community listens kindly to Miss Bates’ vapid prattle. Those who begin by criticizing others generally end by valuing them: the misunderstandings between Emma and Jane give way to admiration; Emma’s objections to Robert Martin are overcome by respect; her mockery of Miss Bates is replaced with repentance and compassion; Mr. Knightley’s critical observation leads to love. Emma and Frank, the two most disposed to find fault, both find themselves ultimately loved by a person they do not feel they deserve. The only people who stand outside the warm circle are the Eltons, whose chief concern is not relationship but their own precedence, and who thus seem destined for angry misery. I love both the film and BBC versions, but especially like the latter for its portrayal of the boundedness of Emma’s world and the rational bases for Mr. Woodhouse’s fears.
The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith: I’m partial to his Isabel Dalhousie mysteries, but every now and then I stop in to read another volume of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. The calm pacing and powerful sense of place make me breathe deeply and slow down. Mma Ramotswe has the wisdom of carefully considered experience, and the evocative descriptions of Botswana open a window on a place I have never been, but now feel almost as if I have.
I’m off to read a few more pages. Read anything good lately that I should add to my pile?