Monday, November 7, 2011

Cultural Illiterate

I am supposed to be kicking off the next series of posts on "the book everyone read before me."  Well... I'm sure you don't have time to read a novel on this topic, and I don't have time to write one, so suffice it to say that my list is very long.

I have written many times about how I was a voracious reader as a kid and was cured of my habit by being forced in middle and high school to plow through the "classics."  I am a slow reader, a picky reader, and now that I am a grown-up, I choose to use my limited time to read only what I enjoy.  Sue me.

My grandmother shared a room with me from the time I was six to the time I was twelve.  She was functionally illiterate and highly disapproved of the time I spent with my nose buried in a book when I could be sweeping, dusting, or learning to cook.  (To this day, I relish the fact that I don't sweep, dust, or cook.)  My mom also did not read for leisure, though she enjoyed reading aloud to me.  I had a few of the old-time classics on my shelf, and I very much wanted to like them.  Hans Brinker (boring -- but pretty pictures); The Wind in the Willows (talking animals?  only E.B. White could make me believe);  I never even got through Winnie the Pooh.  After several unsuccessful attempts to read my way through the 19th century, and I made my peace and happily cast aside the (not-)dusty old tomes for Mitch and Amy and the Bobbsey Twins.  I must say, I never looked back.

My mom tells the story of changing schools in sixth grade and being enthralled by Moby-Dick as read aloud to the class by her new teacher.  We read Billy Budd in high school, and I promptly crossed Moby-Dick off my to-read list.  My dad (who is a reader's reader) raved about The Last of the Mohicans, and I did make it through that one -- only to wonder why I'd bothered. To Kill a Mockingbird was the only book I forced myself through during this period that was memorable to me for its magnificence.

I actually believe that the male-centricness of the "canon" is a big part of my problem.  While I can appreciate his brilliance, I can't say I'm a fan of macho Hemingway.  Whaling and warring are frankly not relatable or interesting to me.  At some point, I looked at War and Peace and Anna Karenina on the shelf in their thousand-page splendor and realized that, as a writer, I would need to know these stories; but I couldn't hack getting through them.  Thank God for movies!

Of course I could write a whole new post about the movies/TV shows I've never seen (inexcusable in a TV writer)...   The older I get, the shorter my attention span.  Since having kids, I can only consume information in small bites -- while working, while on the elliptical, while someone is talking in my ear.  I listen to a book on tape in the car, and my attention wanders.  Kids' books are the perfect reads for me right now -- maybe forever.

My 1st-grade daughter has just begun to read without prompting, totally for pleasure.  I noticed that she would still prefer to choose a long and potentially tricky picture book (i.e., Eloise) than a chapter book that requires more steady effort.  Like me, she appears to be a serial starter (poor thing).  However, as of this weekend, I think Beezus and Ramona has got her. :)

Happy week, and happy reading to all! -- Jeanne Marie


  1. >>She was functionally illiterate and highly disapproved of the time I spent with my nose buried in a book when I could be sweeping, dusting, or learning to cook. << I can so related to this, JM! While my mother could read in both Italian and English, she complained whenever she saw me with my nose it a book. She, too, thought my time would be better spent sweeping, dusting, or cooking, or doing dishes, mending, knitting, gardening, and just about any other domestic chore.

  2. I don't remember my grandmother reading either. She lived with us (and I am grateful for her presence still today) for several years before her death. She encouraged us to do addition to teaching us how to crochet, properly clean a table, and to do word puzzles (crossword puzzles, anagrams and the like). If I don't have a book in my purse you are sure to find me with a word fine, cryptogram or a sudoku.

  3. "Kids' books are the perfect reads for me right now -- maybe forever."

    I have to admit that I do love children's classics such as Little Women, Treasure Island, and even Wind in the Willows. However, when it comes to adult classics, I can probably count the number I enjoy with my fingers. Long live children's literature!


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