Sunday, December 04, 2011

Growing up Bookish: What I learned from Harriet, Claudia, Mary and more

“What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.” — Anne Lamott

I'm helping my mother clean out her attics, an emotional process as she prepares to move out of her house of over 20 years, clearing out years of memories, selling antiques that won't fit into her new, down-sized life, and giving away books.  So. Many. Books.

We found a reading report from my second grade teacher, the beloved Nan Stewart, in which she had written that she didn't worry about assigning me reading for the summer break, as "Rebecca loves to read."  Both my parents are story-tellers, and raised us as readers.  Saturdays and summer days were spent on the floor at the Eugene public library, surrounded by stacks and the smell of books. I remember my mom's reasoning about why I shouldn't read Sweet Valley High books:  not because they were trashy or taught poor morals for a pre-teen girl, but that they weren't well-written.

Cleaning out the attic, opening boxes and boxes of storybooks and novels, covers tattered from reading over and over again, my mom remembered how I revered books as a little girl, how I'd barely crack the covers so as not to break the spine, how upset I got if my sister borrowed one and dogeared a page to save her place. I moved on from that quickly, and now my love of favorite books shows in how dogeared and scribbled upon they are.

Looking at my childhood collection, story is how I learned to understand the world. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (E.L. Konigsburg) introduced me to adventure and investigation, Dancing Shoes and Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfield) still makes me wish I hadn't quit ballet class and had grown into a dancer, albeit a tall dancer.  Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh) inspired me to take notes on life all around me, that everything and everyone has a story, and to find connections in the unexpected.  The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett), its battered, broken spine falling open to page 130, reminding me, in our "we live in public" lives of Facebook, Twitter and blogging, how lovely it is to discover and keep a secret, and perhaps share it with just one or two trusted friends.

"They have to please me," he said. "I will make them take me there and I will let you go, too."

Mary's hands clutched each other. Everything would be spoiled — everything! Dickon would never come back. She would never again feel like a missel thrush with a safe-hidden nest.

"Oh, don't—don't—don't—don't do that!" she cried out.

He stared as if he thought she had gone crazy!

"Why?" he exclaimed. "You said you wanted to see it."

"I do," she answered with almost a sob in her throat, "but if you make them open the door and take you in like that it will never be a secret again."

He leaned still farther forward.

"A secret," he said. "What do you mean? Tell me."

Mary's words almost tumbled over one another.

"You see—you see," she panted, "if no one knows but ourselves—if there was a door, hidden somewhere under the ivy—if there was—and we could find it; and if we could slip through it together and shut it behind us, an dno one knew any one was inside and we called it our garden and pretended that—that we were missel thrushes and it was our nest, and if we played there almost every day and dug and planted seeds and made it all come alive—"

"...If the garden was a secret and we could get into it we could watch the things grow bigger every day, and see how many roses are alive. Don't you see? Oh, don't you see how much nicer it would be if it was a secret?" 

— The Secret Garden

“I am simply a ‘book drunkard.’ Books have the same irresistible temptation for me that liquor has for its devotee. I cannot withstand them.” — L.M. Montgomery

Read more quotes from writers on the love of reading at Flavorpill.