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.