Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Surrounded by Books

I spent my childhood surrounded by books. Our house was a nest of novels, of history, of poetry. My bedroom walls were filled with built-in bookcases.  At child’s eye level, there were picture books when I was young, Nancy Drew novels--then Agatha Christie mysteries--as I began to mature, and the books of the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen when I was in high school.

The shelves near the ceiling were filled with my mother’s books. Before I was born, she taught high school English. During my childhood, she taught introductory composition classes at the local college. Her classic novels--from Flaubert to Salinger, from Tolstoy to Twain--called to me sometimes when I was searching for something to read. Often I pulled down volumes that pleased me enormously--such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which has remained a favorite. At other times, I wound up with books I hated with a red-hot heat, such as Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome. The length of some of the novels (such as Anna Karenina) intimidated me so much that I never took those volumes down at all.

My father was a history professor and a writer. Every night after he read me stories and sang me traditional songs, I would fall asleep to the clickety-clack of his typewriter as he worked on his dissertation or a book in his study next to my room. Occasionally I slipped one of my father’s favorite books out of his study: Homer’s The Odyssey, Faulkner, John Dos Passos, the Bible.

Although I had bookish parents and I loved to read myself, I went to an anti-intellectual high school. In English lit when most students across the nation are studying Chaucer and Shakespeare and Keats, we spent months reading aloud every word of Jane Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, my teacher’s own favorite book-of-the-moment.

I graduated from high school having learned what I knew about literature only from my own pleasure reading and from casual discussion with my family. And from this background, I entered Harvard. There I was surrounded by fellow students who had learned Latin in high school and read Virgil in the original, studied numerous Shakespeare plays, and read Dostoevsky’s entire ouevre.

I spent days working on my first writing sample for my freshman expository writing class. When the professor handed it back, he complimented me on my ability to think beyond the standard 3-point 5-paragraph essay. All I could say is, “Thanks--but what’s a 5-paragraph essay?”

Because my college professors assumed their students had already studied the classics in high school, many literature classes looked at lesser-known works and authors. I was thrilled to find a course in southern literature where I stuffed my brain with everything from Thomas Wolfe to Eudora Welty. I read novels by mid-20th century African American authors like Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin in another class, and followed up on my own with everything from Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

I shied away from a college class on Shakespeare when I realized that the professor probably assumed her students had already studied multiple plays and therefore planned to analyze them in much greater detail. My own background was very limited--and I did not have faith in my ability to keep up.  (Now, more confident, I wish I had not wasted my chance to study with that professor, the renowned Shakespeare scholar Marjorie Garber.)

I wound up majoring in history, especially enjoying my classes discussing social history and the construction of race and gender. After graduating from college, I enrolled in a PhD program where I studied American history. Soon I found myself following in my father’s footsteps, typing my dissertation and books--quietly on a word processor, in this generation--as my son fell asleep beside me.

Although I still write (stuff like this book), I no longer teach university-level history. And, although I still read obsessively, for many years I have spent much more time reading non-fiction than the novels that drew me to a life of words in the beginning.

Over the course of the last few months--for reasons I can hardly trace-- I’ve found myself becoming more and more interested in filling in some of the enormous gaps in my literary education. In my next post, I’ll talk more about the project I’ve set out for myself and about how I intend to use this blog.

45 comments:

  1. I loved reading this! I'm always fond of posts that allow us to get inside the head of the blogger, so to speak. I could not imagine the high school that you attended (although mine was hardly literary by any stretch).

    I plan on spending a good portion of 2011 returning to the classics. I earned a lit degree but still do not feel nearly as well-read as I should be. There are so many *big* names and *big* novels out there. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. (And surprising when I haven't read a book - Jane Eyre, really?! How'd I miss that one?)

    Can't wait to read your blog this up and coming year.

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  2. Thanks, Christina! _Jane Eyre_ is one of my favorite books of all time. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. I'm looking forward to hearing more about your 2011 reads.

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  3. It's wonderful to see a post come here and also to learn so much about you! I'm jealous of the books you had around you growing up. My family had very few books beyond the beginning-reader level, except for some adult horror and mysteries like Stephen King and Dean Kootz. I had plenty of recs from librarians up until my pre-teens, and then nothing. No one had any idea what to suggest to me. I couldn't find anything I liked because all the suggestions were genre fiction and I didn't like how formulaic they were. I quit reading for almost a decade. I'm so glad now that I started reading again in 2001, which is why I'm celebrating my anniversary next year with the classic weekly project.

    I love hearing peoples' journeys!! Thanks for posting this.

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  4. I only spent one year in college, and it was at BYU, so a lot of the literary discussion with my fellow students involved quoting scripture, which drove me mad. So all my reading has been self-informed, I am always happy to run into better educated people than me to learn from :).

    My high school was not anti-intellectual, and in Wisconsin wehre I went, they at least had standards that required us to read SOME things, but it was CERTAINLY not any kind of real comprehensive survey, and many of my teachers I got the impression that they really didn't like the books they taught all that much. My senior year was different, the teacher was much more in love with the written word.

    I am glad I found your blog, I look forward to following it. Will you be posting which books you will be reading next before you read them each month? Some would be fun to follow along with, though I'm probably a much slower reader, so I'd hate to commit to read ALL of them.

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  5. Wonderful post. I always wished I majored in history in college...one of these days.

    Your book looks very interesting as well.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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  6. I was thrilled to see our library has your book. Guess I'll be wandering up into the tower in a few minutes to retrieve Junius Wilson.

    (You don't happen to live in North Carolina, do you?)

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  7. Amanda: How lovely to see you here! I always love seeing all the wonderful things you read now. And I'm excited about the classic weekly project and can't wait to hear more. Thanks so much for your comment.

    Jason: Given how widely read you seem to be from your blog and how insightful your posts are, I can't imagine thinking of you as poorly educated. You've just educated yourself rather than getting it in school. Happy to have you here. And yes--I'll post about what is upcoming. Right now there is a small list on the sidebar, but I'll be making it more obvious as January approaches.

    Man of la Books: Thanks for your comment and for stopping by. I'll warn you up front that my book is academic history complete with lots of endnotes, even though I think it is accessible for non-historians.

    SFP: I don't live in NC now, but I grew up in Scotland County and then lived in Chapel Hill for a couple of years after college. My family travels to NC frequently and I will always think of it as the most beautiful state. How wonderful that you are checking out my book! Thank you very much.

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  8. Hi Lifetime Reader, thanks for the background! Can't wait for more posts!

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  9. i always enjoy your posts.. (and i too read the ordinary (and the unusual) --

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  10. IngridLola: I'm so glad to have you here! Welcome!

    OfTroy: Yay! How wonderful to have knitters follow me and represent, even though I'm booking it right now. (I promise I still knit, too--and will have a picture soon!)

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  11. What a fascinating blog post! You seem to have had the kind of home life I'd have loved! And you have obvioulsy risen above that high school! (I read a wee bit of Clan of the Cave Bear once. Raunchy stuff! How on earth did you manage to read it ALOUD in class? I was covered in embarrassment when I had to translate 'ovum' in Latin class!)
    I, too am a knitter and home-educator. (Or was. Offspring grown up now.)
    I'm just about to add you to my blog-roll.
    Penny

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  12. I loved your post about how you developed your love of reading-Many years ago I bought the first edition (1960) of Clifton Fadiman's book, The Life Time Reading Plan-now 50 or so years latter I am still working on it-reading one of the few selections I still have left-The Red and The Black-thanks for following my blog and I am now a follower of yours and look forward to your future posts

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  13. Mel, that's a great book, isn't it? I read it aloud to my husband every so often. I came to it through Anne Fadiman's book, Ex Libris, which I also read aloud. We both loved it and I think we're due for a re-read soon!
    Penny

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  14. SVH2: How wonderful to have knitters and homeschoolers reading! Thrilled to have you here. And yes--it was quite embarassing to read Clan in class! I love Anne Fadiman--and also discovered her father through her. (Wonder how often that happens these days?) I'll be talking about that next week.

    Mel U: Isn't that book inspiring? I'm so impressed that you've read through so much of it! There is something about Fadiman that seems both a little superior and at the same time utterly charming and quirky. His book was certainly the big inspiration for my project, as you can guess from the title.

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  15. Thanks for stopping by my Literary BFF list. This is a great post and I like seeing that you have Gilgamesh on your list to be read. I just read that this year and loved it!

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  16. I can't wait to hear about the project you're working on! I'm glad to know someone else is embarking on a classics project around the same time I am.

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  17. Bev: I'm so glad to hear you enjoyed Gilgamesh! Welcome to Lifetime Reading Plan.

    Erin: It is so exciting to see so many people commit to reading more classics. I'm very much looking forward to your progress.

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  18. Can't wait to follow along on your journey! :)

    My college wasn't anti-intellectual, but I had a couple years of bad English teachers, which was frustrating. And while I've always been a voracious reader, I hated the way books were treated in English, taking them apart to eek out every symbol. So I avoided all lit classes in college; now I wish I'd given one or two a go.

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  19. It is always a hard question for me where that border is. When are we wallowing in a book and soaking up everything it can offer, and when are we taking it apart and destroying it? Y'all will have to save me if I start going down a dangerous path!

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  20. Wonderful posting! It was great, as was said above, to kind of get inside of your head regarding this blog. I am really, really looking forward to interacting with you and your blog as you kick off this incredible journey. It seems that both of us are kind of going down the same fork in the road these days with respect to our reading goals. Keep up the good work! Cheers! Chris

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  21. Thanks so much for stopping by, Chris! I've been enjoying your posts about some of these books very much and have found your discussions inspiring. I'm thrilled to have you here.

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  22. What an amazing story.

    My mom and dad were always readers, but my mom keeps a LOT of romances around the house and my dad read a lot of popular fiction. I was never exposed to classics outside of school until high school when I began to make an effort to read them on my own. Sometimes I wish I had grown up with them around me, so I could understand them more. Even with my degrees, I still feel that something is lacking, if you know what I mean.

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  23. I'm afraid growing up with them surrounding you does not always make books easier to understand, unfortunately! It is interesting to hear that one can feel a bit intimidated even with degrees in English. But perhaps that constant feeling that we need to know more is one of the driving human motivations.

    I am so please to have you here, Allie. I love your blog!

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  24. Thanks for commenting on my blog! Your plan of reading through the classics in the coming year sounds fascinating and I shall be following your blog with great interest. I'm sure I'll find lots more to add to my own wish list!

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  25. Welcome, Rebecca. Thanks for dropping by!

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  26. What a fantastic story! Good for you. I'm so happy that you were able to empower yourself to take on challenges and attempt to meet new goals.

    I'm a new follower!

    Here is my post for the Blog Hop.

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  27. I recall reading this post a couple of weeks ago. It's lovely to grow up in a library all your parents' doing. My mother has shelves and shelves that I still raid.

    And I couldn't help laughing over the '5-paragraph essay' incident.:D

    Risa

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  28. Deb Nance: Welcome! This project has been in my "do eventually" pile for such a long time. I'm so glad I'm finally committing myself to it!

    Breadcrumbreads: I do hope my own child has such pleasant memories of his parents' bookshelves!

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  29. Logically I understand breathing came before reading,but by all other criteria I believe it's the other way round.

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  30. An interesting path you took to get you where you are now.

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  31. My family definitely read, but they didn't have a passion for literature like I did, so I am completely jealous! My thoughts are at my blog eclectic/eccentric

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  32. What wonderful answers from everyone.

    My story is at: http://silversolara.blogspot.com

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  33. Parrish lantern: Reading does seem that essential, doesn't it?

    Em: I always love hearing about how people think about their pasts. Thanks for stopping by.

    Trisha: I was surrounded by a world that thought my bookishness was weird, so I can imagine how difficult it must be to grow up as the only passionate bookworm in a family. Having my parents' support got me through those awkward years.

    Elizabeth: Although I wrote this post right as I started this blog rather than specifically for the Literary Blog Hop, I was thrilled to see it as a choice and happy to have the opportunity to hear other people's thoughts.

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  34. You caught my eye when you left a comment on another blog stating that you had taught at Gallaudet (still are?). I'm deaf myself so I just had to stop by! Your blog looks like one I'd enjoy so I'm adding it to my reader feed :-).

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  35. Valerie: I am so glad to find you! I left Gallaudet to stay home with a child and write books--but I miss it. What a great place it is. Thanks for letting me know you stopped by.

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  36. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm now returning the favour :) I am so touched by this post & how articulately you describe a love of reading that is, ironically, often difficult to put into words. I'm a new follower. Have a great weekend.

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