Thursday, July 06, 2006

Reading inheritance

Litlove and the Hobgoblin have written recently on their childhood books and reading habits; I won't be giving you my childhood reading list, but I have thought a bit lately about how I learned to love to read. Both my parents are readers, but my reading habits today are a bit more like my dad's than my mom's -- although I'm quite a bit different from him too. My dad has two types of books he likes to read: science fiction/fantasy and 19C novels. Occasionally he'll venture into something 18C or 20C, the latter usually something like Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle -- historical fiction, in other words. He's read more Walter Scott than anyone I know, and is always on the lookout for ones he hasn't gotten to yet (and there are tons of them). He's a big fan of Tolstoy and Dickens and Eliot. I'm guessing he's read Henry James, but James is a little too late-19C/early 20C for him, a little too pre-modernist. I try sometimes to get him to pick up a 20C novel, particularly one in a realist mode, but I don't try that hard because I know he's not really interested. He also owns a number of philosophy and theology books, which I don't remember him actually reading, but I knew he had at one point, and I knew I would be interested in those too, at some point in the future, when I'd become a better reader.

I haven't inherited the SF/F reading habit, but I did become a lover of the 19C novel. Occasionally as a kid I'd pick one up and begin reading and realize that I was in a bit over my head. This happened with War and Peace, I remember, although I did keep with it and finish it. I'm certain I didn't do it justice. But these books became over time the kind of thing I consider a comfort read; sometimes I get in the mood for a long involving novel, one that moves slowly and has multitudes of characters, one that will stay with me for days and days, maybe weeks, and it's the 19C novel, say Eliot or Dickens or the Brontes, I'll turn to.

I'm not sure how to characterize the books my mom reads, although I remember her reading all the time. I know she likes historical fiction and history books, particularly ones about American history. She likes frontier stories and pioneer stories. Occasionally, I think, she reads religious books, and Christian fiction. She might pick up one of my dad's "classics" now and then. She reads young adult novels sometimes.

When I think about who influenced me most directly, at first I think it's my dad. He and I continue to have conversations about books, and although I now read a lot of books he would never pick up, deep down I continue to love his 19c novels the best. But my mom's reading legacy may be even more important. Even though I don't have clear memories of what she read, I do remember her reading all the time. And she is the mother of seven children; I am the oldest. I remember Mom reading when the rest of us were playing and making noise, and continuing to read while we were bugging her for help with this or that. She insisted, in a quiet way, on carving out time for herself, when she let us fend for ourselves and continued to concentrate on a book.

I learned from her not so much a particular kind of book to read, but a way of reading. In the midst of a busy, chaotic life with lots of people surrounding her and making demands on her, she still found time to read. Reading was a way of creating some space for herself to breathe in, I think. I think it's from her that I learned that reading is a way of being -- it's a quiet, thoughtful, meditative approach to life.