Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Evolution of a Reader: Part 1

Each year I have my students write their Autobiography as a Reader. I ask them to tell me their story as readers: What do they read? Why do they read it? What made them love reading? Even, what made them hate reading? Don't worry; I'm not offended by non-readers. I might pity them, but (relatively) silently. And, as is usual for me, whatever I make my students do, I also do. For this assignment it's partly because students are more willing to write something like this when they see I've done it too, perhaps because it shows them it isn't as hard as they might think. But it's also because I actually love my Autobiography as a Reader, which is a bit of a thank you letter to my parents, both readers themselves, who placed an importance on reading from a young age. That emphasis turned me into a reader, and I wouldn't trade my love of books or the joys they've given me for anything.

Both of my parents read to my sister and me at bedtime, but the choice of reading material was vastly different in each household. My mom read mostly Dr. Seuss and other similar stories. We loved listening to her try to pronounce tongue twisters and silly words, and we of course liked the drawings and made-up words. The Lorax and Fox in Socks are two of my favorites. Then, after a book, sometimes two, it was off to bed. This is, I think, a normal bedtime routine for many families.

My dad took a totally different approach to bedtime reading. He would often read to us from whatever he was reading. That meant that we did not read Dr. Seuss. Instead, we read from Agatha -Christie, Miss Marple being one of our favorites, or The Hobbit (the movie of which scarred my sister and me for life for no discernible reason - the old one, with Warwick Davis in the lead role). My dad read these stories to us with no consideration of age, so we were reading these stories at an age that was, certainly, much younger than the intended audience. Neither of us minded, however. And I found that it was often not the story I was listening to, but my dad's voice, because he has a real talent for reading aloud. He has a deep, melodious voice that always aligns with the author's intentions. When a character is shouting, my dad is shouting. When a character is whispering, my dad is whispering. When a character is angry, confused, elated - that's how my dad sounds. And it was these bedtime "stories" that turned me into a reader from a very early age. For the longest time, whenever I read a story, it was my dad's voice I heard in my head.

Similarly, it was these bedtime readings that determined what I enjoyed reading on my own. Both of my parents like a good mystery. Mom prefers Patterson and Cornwell, while Dad gravitates to Christie and Grafton. So as I began to choose my own books, I consistently chose mystery. And it wasn't until I started doing the Autobiography as a Reader assignment with my students that I realized I'd boxed myself in. I often speak to my students about stepping out of their comfort zone in reading and trying something new because they never know what joy they might find in a book they might never have otherwise considered...

Hypocrite alert! I realized that, despite my philosophy, I was telling my students to do something I wasn't willing to do! Aside from a brief children's literature kick started by a college class, wherein I burned through The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe series (which actually starts with The Magician's Nephew, and is a series I'd recommend to just about anyone, child or adult) and then the Harry Potter series (twice actually), mystery was my go-to book. I had no interest in a book that didn't include at least one dead body well into my adulthood. This assignment forced me to accept that one of those non-readers I pitied was myself! Of course I'm a reader, but in staying within my preferred genre, I was missing out on a whole host of experiences and amazing books, most notably (and surprisingly) non-fiction books, which I'd always assumed were about as interesting as my history textbooks. So I set out to take my own advice, and start reading things that I wouldn't normally go for. It's this decision that forced me to evolve as a reader and realize that there are some amazing books out there that affected me, not just as a reader, but as a person. They are presented below in no particular order.

The House Across the Cove by Barbara Hall and Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan (young adult mysteries)

Don't fault me for beginning my list with two mysteries that I read as a kid, because as I was compiling this list, I realized that there are a LOT of books that changed me as a reader. The important lesson I learned from these books is that not only is it possible to become totally lost in a book, it's necessary. I think that, although I read a lot and basically lived in the local library as a kid, I'd never really understood what it felt like to live a book, to actually enter the world of a book, until I read these, both around 11 or 12.

The House Across the Cove makes the list because it's the first book I ever sat down and read in one sitting despite it being nearly 300 pages. I read it in about five hours without moving from a spot below my bedroom window. I inhaled this book, and as a young reader, that was so, so important to me. House had such an impact on me that I took great pains to track down a copy (it's out of print now) so I could re-read it as an adult. And it's so precious to me that it's one of the only young adult books of mine that didn't make it to the classroom library. (Find your own worn copy kiddos. This one is too important to me. Think of it as an adventure.) When I first got House, I'd never read something that I literally could not put down. And it's this title I refer to when talking to my reluctant readers about "finding that just right book" that will help them find something to love about reading. And other than Down a Dark Hall, it's one of the very few books that I actually remember from my childhood.

Down a Dark Hall had a similar effect on me. I didn't read it in one sitting, but I recall one specific occasion when I was in the sixth grade. It was silent reading time and I sat at my desk in Mrs. Blackwwood's classroom, reading the climax of the story. I was so totally enthralled, that when I came up for air, I realized I was alone. The entire class had gotten up and left for lunch and I didn't even notice. I didn't see them get up, didn't hear the talking and the shuffling and gathering of lunch boxes, didn't hear Mrs. Blackwood call my name - not a damn thing. I was gobsmacked. I couldn't understand how it was even possible to be that into a book. Only one other book in my lifetime has had that affect on me - American Gods by Neil Gaiman (author of another book I love and recommend, Neverwhere.) American Gods is my boyfriend's least favorite book, even though he's never read it, because he insists I completely ignored him any time it was in my hands. I didn't actually ignore him, mind you. I simply didn't notice him, wasn't even capable of it, the book is that good. (It's also one of the only books that I actually mourned over when I finished it.) And, ultimately, isn't that what we want out of a good book? To be so enthralled, so entertained, that the real world actually disappears and is replaced by the world the author has created for you? To live in that world?

The House Across the Cove
Down a Dark Hall
American Gods

Stiff by Mary Roach (and everything else she's written) (non-fiction/research)

The first genre I attempted to tackle when I started taking my own advice was non-fiction. I'd notoriously avoided the genre my entire life. I told myself over and over again that I just didn't like it, which is a total lie because I'd refused to even try it for most of my life. And I avoided it for the same reason most of my students avoid it - I assume it'll bore me to death. I need mystery, intrigue, plot! That's fiction isn't it? Non-fiction is for history textbooks. Research is for nerds. 

Wrong! The truth is you can find excitement in many non-fiction books, and this is another strong case for finding that just right book. I'd attempted to read a few non-fiction books over the years, but they were mostly left unfinished (except for Edgar Allan by John Neufeld, but we'll get to that one another time). When I went to a Walden Books going-out-of-business sale, it wasn't me who picked this title up, but my boyfriend. He said, "You're going to love this book." And every time he's said that to me, he's been right, so I gave it a shot. And I loved it. Why? Because there is mystery and intrigue and excitement! This book in particular is about a subject that ties in with why I love mysteries and Dateline marathons - dead bodies. It's a book about the science of cadavers and how they've been historically used to teach us any number of things, from how to perform surgery to the effects of car crashes on humans to why victims of plane crashes are so often found without any clothes on. And as soon as I started Stiff, any worries of dry, boring scientific writing were quelled. Roach is funny and serious at the same time. She's enthusiastic about every topic she's researched, and that enthusiasm comes through in her writing. She's one of the most genuine non-fiction authors out there. If you don't believe me, or you don't have an interest in cadavers, then try Gulp or Packing for Mars, or Bonk. She won't disappoint you, no matter where your interests lie. The only book of hers I haven't inhaled is Spook, which tackles the topic of life after death from a research perspective, and that's only because I'm terrified of the subject - but it's still on my TBR list. Someday. Anyway, the point is, that you never know what you're going to enjoy in terms of genre until you give it the good college try. It was this book that turned me onto the non-fiction genre, and since then, I've read several non-fiction books, and not just those by Roach. I've discovered my interests are far more varied than I ever imagined. 

A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (yes, sis, you read that right) and Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman (more non-fiction, both by physicists) 

Um, science? Please; I barely survived biology and chemistry, and not for lack of trying. For Pete's sake, I almost didn't pass Geosystems, which was basically science for dummies. And outer space? Are there aliens? How about Mulder and Scully, are they in it? No? Pfft. Not interested. That's what I used to think whenever someone suggested reading to learn something. Reading isn't for learning, it's for fun! Right? Well, as it turns out, it's for both. That's something that was hard for me to grasp before I actually became a teacher and realized I not only had to find a way to teach kids to both enjoy what they read, but also to enjoy learning from it. 

A Brief History of Time is as far out of my comfort zone as I've ever gone. Not only is it about science and physics, it's written by a physicist and it's full of theories and other terms I'd never heard of. I had to look up every third word in a dictionary to even begin to try to comprehend what I was reading. I read whole paragraphs, sometimes pages, three or four times before I got a grasp on the topic. This was not a book I read, but a book I survived. I considered dropping it several times because it was so difficult to read. So why didn't I? To impress a guy, of course. My boyfriend and I had just met, and he's far more educated, more intelligent than me. And although I'm far from stupid, I was worried about coming off as an idiot because we couldn't discuss many of the topics he's interested in. When he suggested I give the book a try and loaned me his own copy, I was determined to show him I could finish it, understand it, and even discuss the topics contained therein. So, although it took me several months, mission accomplished. What this book taught me is to never give up just because a book (or really, anything) is hard. Finishing this title is something I wear as a badge of honor. And if I'd never read it, I might never have read many other non-fiction titles about space that have both expanded me as a reader and lead me to another topic that I enjoy reading - and learning - about. 

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman is not a science book, but a memoir, which is a genre that I was even less interested in than non-fiction, if that's possible. Why on Earth would I care to read about someone else's life? It has nothing to do with me, and I have nothing to gain from reading it. Oh, Dian, you're so silly! What actually convinced me to try this title is a road trip. While driving to Asheville, North Carolina, my boyfriend played an audio version of a different title by Feynman, his favorite physicist. I'd expected to be thoroughly bored and uninterested, and of course, it was the opposite. I learned that not all scientists are boring nerds, and Feynman actually led a really interesting life. I learned to appreciate romance, both fictional and in real life, as he talked about his first wife, whom he married knowing she would eventually die of tuberculosis. In listening to his story about being involved in solving the mystery of what caused the Challenger disaster, I realized that I'm actually really interested in space missions and how they come together, in the science of creating a vessel that will safely carry man into the void of space and then safely bring them home. I learned the value of real-life problem solving, and in teaching yourself to do something - like how to "guess" someone's lock combination - through sheer determination and never giving up. I also learned playing the bongos naked might not be an activity exclusive to Matthew Mcconaughey. Even physicists know how to have a good time outside of the lab.

Don't worry, I haven't finished telling you about the Great Books in Dian's Library. See Evolution of a Reader: Part 2 for more, which I'll write as soon as I put a book down long enough to do it.

And I would LOVE to hear about the books that have had an effect on you as a reader. Drop me a line in the comments below. I might even read some of them!