It’s a masterpiece!
I am reading the most fabulous book right now, “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson. This is a huge book, I believe it said some 1,000 print pages if I’m recalling it right from the Amazon description (Kindle doesn’t use traditional page numbers, since it’s digital and you can set your own text size). I’m loving every moment of it. I want to declare it a masterpiece right now, but since I haven’t finished it yet, I guess that’s a bit premature.
Still, I haven’t been this excited about a book in a very long time. When I’m done with it, I’ll write a long review.
It’s this sort of discovery that makes me love reading so very much. I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid; I was mostly into television. I did read for pleasure once in a while, though. As a teenager, my favorite book was “How Green Was My Valley.” I remember crying and crying, and feeling the injustice of it all so exquisitely intensely. I think it planted the seeds of environmentalism and labor rights in me, seeds that bloomed in my 20′s but have faded as I’ve aged, life withering me down to the disgusted and disillusioned old hag you see before you today.
I recently re-read “How Green Was My Valley,” something I had never done in all these years, out of fear of spoiling the memory of it with my very adult-ness. To my great pleasure, it truly is a beautiful book. I even got teary-eyed at the end.
Another favorite of mine as a teen was Ernest Hemingway. I read most all of his books in high school, loving his spare prose and even more spare, emotionally speaking, characters. (Side note: later in college, I turned on Hemingway, pretty much relegating him to the misogynist bin).
I went to college to study engineering (which is where I met Hedon, incidentally). Turned out that engineering wasn’t for me. In my sophomore year, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful English professor. When I think back on it, I feel sure I had a bit of a crush on her, though I was clueless to the idea that I might be a lesbian at the time (Hedon and I were friends only). Well, clueless or in denial … whichever hardly matters.
I can’t remember that instructor’s name for sure, but I think it was Beverly something. She had this remarkable wild mane of naturally curly brown hair, that she could barely keep under control with pins and headbands and ponytail holders. She wore long, flowing skirts in colorful fabrics, and loose, billowy shirts with large floral patterns that only someone as petite as she was could get away with.
Beverly would breeze into our classroom, usually seeming somewhat flustered and hurried. And then she’d settle in and read to us, engineering students mind you, her favorite literature. I’ll never forget her face when she read from Proust, her favorite, and Theodore Roethke. I still remember the Roethke poem, “Elegy for Jane,” and the way Beverly sighed after she read the line, “The sides of wet stones cannot console me.”
While I feel fairly certain that most of her students were utterly unmoved by this, and instead of listening were actually planning their strategy for their next “Dungeons and Dragons” game, she won a convert in me.
I transferred to another university that fall, a school more appropriate for a liberal arts student, and majored in English. Very quickly, I learned I had made a fine choice of schools, and I buried myself under loads of literature. It became apparent that I actually didn’t much care for poetry, and old fellows like Milton and Chaucer left me underwhelmed. But I discovered Jane Austen, who is my favorite author to this day. And there were so many other wonderful authors introduced to me. I read and read and read. I loved thinking about these books. I loved how they made me feel. I loved what they taught me.
In general, I focused on 20th century literature, mainly because the language was so much more accessible. I stuck to this trend when I later entered grad school. It was here that my love of reading took an alarming turn. In my second year of grad school, I realized I didn’t love reading anymore.
I had already pretty much figured out that a life in academia wasn’t for me. Inter-departmental politics were as absurd as a hillbilly brawl on “The Jerry Springer Show,” the only true difference being the number of syllables used in the insults. And these English department people participated in remarkably fascinating, and horrifically dull behavior like standing around in hallways debating the proper usage of the word “whereas,” and actually managing to work themselves into emotions I can only describe as indignation when their opinion was not accepted in an appropriately humble and thankful manner. Then there were the publishing wars, where everyone struggled to get more articles published in literary journals than other department members.
So yeah, I had figured out that academic life wasn’t for me. It wasn’t all that surprising, really, But what was surprising was that I had lost my love of reading somewhere along the way. I no longer read novels the way I once did, letting them unfold as I went along, taking the ride as it was meant to be taken. Instead, I was reading as a critic, looking for the connections, the themes, the foreshadowing, the various points which would work their way into my next paper. Books had become puzzles to be solved and theses to be proven. All the gut emotion had vanished. I realized what I loved about literature was lost to me.
I didn’t complete my graduate degree. And I stopped reading literature; it was too depressing. I thought I’d try my hand at writing romance novels, which meant I had better start reading them. They fit my requirement that there be nothing real about them. I read hundreds of these romance novels, and found certain among them enjoyable. My favorites are the ones with a sense of humor and quirky characters.
Over the years, I’ve tried out all sorts of genre fiction. I enjoy historical novels, particularly those set in pre-history, in ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, and really any period that I find particularly exotic and foreign. I enjoy hard science fiction, like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I like some fantasy, especially when penned by a fine writer like C.J. Cherryh. And Anne Rice. I love, love, love Anne Rice. Pretty much everything she’s ever written. And J.K. Rowling (who doesn’t love J.K. Rowling?), though all my Harry Potter “reading” has been through audio cassette, read by the incomparable Jim Dale.
It would be ridiculous to list everyone I love, or enjoy, or like. The point is that, in all the years since my disastrous stint in grad school, I avoided classic literature (with a few exceptions like Jane Austen). It wasn’t until I started truck driving that I, at last, decided to return to the classics. And I did it through audiobooks.
Oh glorious day. Somehow, after all those years, I had been cured. I could feel these books again. And I felt them even more so than I did in college. It’s because I’m older now, and life has kicked my ass more than a time or two, so I understand these books in ways that are different than I ever could have in my 20′s.
Also, thanks to audiobooks making the language much more accessible, I’ve discovered writers like Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte and George Elliott, among others. So there, grad school — take that!
I have recently decided that I need to branch out further and make some stabs at non-fiction, ever a bane of mine since having to read those boring social studies and history textbooks in grade school (I mean, come on, it’s so much more interesting if you make a story out of this stuff). My success has been limited, but I’m staying firm in my decision to broaden my horizons. I actually managed to finish Susan Jacoby’s “The Age of American Unreason,” which is something of a triumph for me. I followed it up with a retrospective feast of the best romance novels of Kathleen Woodiwiss. It can be fun being me.
If you’ve made it all the way through this long and rambling post, you may be wondering what the point was, and while I’m pretty sure I had one in the beginning, I’m sorry to admit I lost it along the way. I’ll just think of this as “Stace’s History with Books.” I can’t wait to see where it will lead me next.