January is a good month for reading. It’s cold outside, new books are coming out, and we may have received a few as holiday gifts. Getting lost in a book is one of the ways I deal with stress. My passion for reading has carried me past many rough patches: an emotionally fraught childhood, lonely college years, an unhappy marriage, and ten years of single motherhood. Books were with me all the way.
I read everything I could get my hands on, safe between the pages with Nancy Drew, Cherry Ames Student Nurse, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Jo and her sisters in Little Women, characters as familiar as friends and always available. I learned about potential careers–nursing, farming, girl detective–and that girls could lead exciting lives.
I read our local paper, the Amsterdam Evening Recorder and Daily Democrat from front page to back, and the New York Daily News with its lurid tales of murder, complete with grainy black and white photos.
When I was old enough to walk there by myself, I spent hours at the public library, a lovely old Carnegie building with stone columns and a carved scroll above the massive front doors that read “Open to All.” At first, I read whatever appealed to me at the moment, judging most books by their covers. In the young-adult section, I learned everything I wanted to know about sex but was afraid to ask. By the time I got to high school, I had read true crime, romantic suspense, and women’s biographies, as well as coming-of-age novels and authors like Thomas Wolfe, William Faulkner, Benjamin Malamud and Philip Roth. The fatter the novel, the more I liked it, for it promised hours and hours of escape. I read Phyllis Whitney and Victoria Holt voraciously for their tales of suspenseful romance. I fell in love with the classic, cozy murder mystery ala Agatha Christie, set in quaint country villages filled with friendly people.
When I went away to college, I read The New Republic while waiting for class to begin. I read whatever my philosophy teacher liked, including Herbert Marcuse and Karl Marx. I even changed my major to sociology so I could read more of what I liked. It was the 60s, the heyday of social revolution in America and I didn’t want to spend another minute in the science lab. I read Emerson and Thoreau, the beat poets–Ferlinghetti, Kerouac–and the radicals–Abby Hoffman, Eldridge Cleaver. I hadn’t yet noticed that I wasn’t reading anything serious by a woman.
I spent a happy year in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the home of the first Borders bookstore. Everyone in town knew how to get to two places: the university football stadium and Borders.
After divorce, May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude got me through dozens of lonely weekends. It was the 1980s, and self-help was the hottest section in the local bookstore. I think I lived there for awhile. Every book seemed written for me: Women Who Love Too Much, Men Who Hate Women And the Women Who Love Them, Women Who Do Too Much, Codependent No More. This was also the heyday of the modern feminist movement, and my church formed a women’s spirituality group. We read Starhawk, Marge Piercy, Margot Adler, Germaine Greer, Betty Freidan, and Gloria Steinem.
I sometimes wonder if reading can be an addiction. Is there a book called Women Who Read Too Much? I can’t quit. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends a reading fast. She says that spending an entire week without reading anything allows the creativity to flow. I wouldn’t last a day.
Do you like to read? Have your tastes in books or authors changed over your lifetime?