Over dinner the other night, my friend Liz was surprised I had not read the same books she had growing up. She also had some thoughtful observations about why she read what she did, something I hadn't considered.
my childhood reading list
What did I read? And what does that mean?
To be fair, I didn't read much before my family moved back to the states in 1973. Literally. 3rd grade is about the time I figured out, with my persistent grandmother's help, how to read. (Dyslexics Untie!)
So what if I got a late start. Once I got it, I read like one obsessed. Reading was an escape. A window to somewhere else—so many somewhere elses. It touched and comforted me.
I can recall the rough shag under the old baby grand piano in our house at Fairchild AFB where I read with my Snoopy pillow: Walter Farley, Jim Kjelgaard, Marguerite Henry, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. When we moved to California the next year, I read in the car through all of Oregon and into the Redwoods. At my Uncle Orson's in Merced, I read through my older cousins' stash of Boys' Life and MAD magazines. The first rental in Bakersfield was furnished with shelves of books: Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters, Louis L'Amour westerns, fairytale collections, and a full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica.
In retrospect, it seems I gravitated toward the lost, challenged, rebellious, or broken. Outlaws, outcasts, people marginalized or misjudged by circumstances outside of their control. Triumphs over great odds. Quests toward salvation, escape, or justice.
The summer in Bakersfield I was 10, and I read from my father's personal books—a grueling story about a medical resident (I thought it was entitled "The Resident" but cannot locate it), and the Hiroshima Diary by Dr. Michihiko Hachiya. That book moved me like no other, even as an adult, perhaps more so because of the years spent living in Japan. Combined with James Herriot's veterinarian series, I concluded that humans were generally more kind to animals than to each other, although barely so.
The summer before seventh grade, I was transitioning with pre-teenage angst to Tolkien, Asimov, Anne McCaffrey. And then to the Russian writers, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoyevsky. But my childhood foundation was already set.
I still love a good story with animals. Jim Harrison's dog-training heroine in Julip. Edgar Sawtelle's dogs. But it is the human conflict that informs my own writing. To reflect our struggle to connect. Bare our human foibles. Reveal our victories and our failings.
If we do not look, we cannot change.
What did you read?
"Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him."
~ Maya Angelou
"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."
~ Benjamin Franklin