Thursday, June 11, 2009

Book Lust

The age at which I learned to read is debatable. In what must have been a proud parenting moment for my mom, my kindergarten teacher was actually the one who informed her that I could read (my mom just assumed I had memorized those books I recited at home).

But I knew how to read for a while before my kindergarten teacher knew I could. One boy in our class learned to read early in the year and he brought a book to school and got to read it out loud to the entire class. I thought this was awesome and the next day I brought my own book to read to the class. Some sort of miscommunication ensued, because my teacher let that boy read my book out loud while I sat with the other kids.

Things got straightened out before too long and it became clear that I could read and that I could read pretty fast. Like freakishly fast. I could read an entire Weekly Reader article in the time it took the kid in front of me to laboriously pronounce the first few sentences. My third grade teacher reprimanded me for not focusing on the social studies book when I had already read the whole chapter. Twice. My friend Monica still remembers the time in fifth grade that I read a young adult novel -- Wait Til Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn -- in one hour-long class period. Going to the library, I would max out the 8-book check out and finish them all before we made our trip back the next week. By the time I was in middle school, my mom had a rule that if she was going to purchase a book for me, it had to have at least 200 pages because anything shorter than that wouldn't keep me entertained long enough to be worth the investment.

Of course, I wasn't reading anything particularly dense or complex. I mean we're talking Sweet Valley Twins, not Proust. And it's true that when I read, I usually skim some parts, particularly if it is an "easy" novel in which I can expect what words will come next.

I think this is what drew me to nineteenth-century British novels. They are big and fat and sure to last a while. Plus, I like a book that makes me slow down and savor the prose. There are novels that you can gulp down like soft drinks (putting away 50-75 pages in an hour) and there are novels that make you sip and savor and taste the words (30 pages an hour), books that ask to be read the way I imagine people who are serious wine drinkers taste their wine. (Example: If reading Twilight is like chugging a pop, reading Middlemarch is like sipping wine or hot coffee -- you go a little slower and you appreciate it more.)

As the end of my dissertation begins to come into sight (it is in the very far off distance, though, blurry and elusive and maybe just barely peeking over the horizon), I find myself eagerly anticipating all of the non-dissertation related reading I will do. I still try to read for fun, but I get a nagging sense of guilt sometimes when I am reading and I know I should be reading something relevant to my work. Especially because a good book will suck me in at the expense of everything else that needs to get done (like the weekend Harry Potter book 7 came out and I didn't take a break from it except to sleep).

I do a better job of shoving off this guilt in the summer time, when lighter reading seems like one of the many pleasures (along with free concerts and sun tea and walking the dogs at eight o'clock at night) that come with longer summer days.

And this brings me to: my summer reading list! I have already purchased some books that I am saving for our trip this summer. I am making the most of the public library's request function to get some of the other books (the ones that are too thin and sugary to be worth my investment). And then there are those books I own but have never gotten around to reading and really should. So here's my list:

The French Lieutenant's Woman by John FowlesI am currently reading this one and I keep thinking how have I not read this book before? Written in 1969 but set in 1860s England, it has all the best elements of a Victorian novel with literary references to actual Victorian novels! It is an English major's delight and it is one that makes me slow down and read carefully so I catch the allusions. I was creeped out (in a good way) by Fowles's The Collector, so I can't believe I haven't read more of his work. This was a library book, but I think I will have to buy a copy because I want to mark it up and make it my own.

The Historian by Elizabeth KostovaYes! A book about vampires that is also about the rigors and boredom of academia, a love story, a mystery, and a travelogue. It took me about a week to finish this one and it was one of those that I wanted to take everywhere with me and read whenever I got a few minutes. The plot was complex and smart. I remember when this got a lot of press when it first came out but I don't know why it didn't generate more interest for me at that time. After finishing The Twilight series last summer, this was a lovely way to get my vampire fix and feel like I was learning something at the same time.

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine HarrisThis one was my vampire sugar fix. It is the first of the series of books that inspired HBO's new series True Blood. A fellow-grad-student friend recommended it to me in one of those half-ashamed whispers because we all like to pretend that we spend the summer catching up on literary theory and re-reading the great Russian novelists. But we don't. Instead we read delicious and thin paperbacks about sassy bar maids and sexy vampires in Louisiana. I devoured this book Sweet Valley Twins style and when I finished it I contemplated reading it again -- it was that much fun. Not to worry -- I have already requested the next three in the series for my fun summer reading and expect to get through all nine before August. They are perfect for the poolside.

Interesting side note -- after reading this novel, when I went online to find all the of the titles of the series so I could request them from the library in the correct order -- I discovered that Harris also writes mysteries with the protagonist Aurora Teagarden including the novel Real Murders which I read (and reread) in middle school or high school. I believe that I got this book on a visit to The Poisoned Pen bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane SetterfieldI have been told I should read this book by a couple of different people, but the kicker was when the nurse practitioner I was seeing for my burn recommended it to me. I trusted her opinion because at my previous visit she had been reading Middlemarch. I am saving this one for our trip in July and I hope it doesn't disappoint.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie SmithThis one is supposed to be sort of "if you like Jane Austen, you'll like..." so I am also saving it for my trip. How nerdy that I love the anticipation of reading a great book! I figure that I will need three books to get me through the trip. Maybe four. On our vacation last summer, I finished book 4 of the Twilight series on the plane to Milan, got through an entire chick-lit novel (don't recall it, except that it was pink and green and bubble-gum flavored), and read a chunk of George Eliot's Romola (but since Romola is one of GE's 800 page tomes, it really counts as two novels).

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel BarberyThis is the third book I'm going to take on my trip. I am taking it because it's set in Paris and I have heard good things about it (I think on npr).

Moll Flanders by Daniel DefoeNot sure this counts as summer reading because I may be teaching it in the fall and therefore I need to read it first. But it's one of those that I should have read ages ago.

The Little Stranger by Sarah WatersI read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and flipped out over how awesome it is. Yes, it is set in Victorian England, but it's also painstakingly researched. Waters has a PhD and basically shifted from writing her dissertation to writing historical novels. I would like to read all her books, actually, because I think she's great, but I heard an NPR blip about her newest novel, so it makes the list first.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles DickensThis was Dickens's final novel -- a mystery that was left unfinished at the time of his death. I plan to follow this one with Dan Simmons's Drood: A Novel which is narrated by none other than Dickens's friend, colleague, and fellow novelist, Wilkie Collins.

I keep a running list in the back of my planner of other books I hear about and want to read or think that I need to read, so there are a range of other possibilities once I get through these... Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, Servants' Quarters by Lynn Freed, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clark, Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar, and The Willoughbys by Lois Lowery.

If you have recommended summer reads that shouldn't be missed, please share!

1 comment:

  1. I have "The Guernsey Literary Society and Potato Peel Pie" book - you can borrow it if you'd like.