Growing up, I was not the book reader in my family. That was my older sister. I was the "talented one." The
singer. I still read books though. Beverly Cleary and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judy Blume.
I guess I didn't become what's called an "avid reader" until I was in my 20s. About the time I became a writer. The two are not unrelated. I passionately believe that if you want to be a better writer, read the kind of writing you want to write.
In my 20s and even into my 30s, I used to go to used book stores to stock up on material. Afterward, I would give the books away or take them back to the store to trade them in on others.
You might think it's odd that a person with such a love for books doesn't have walls and walls covered in book shelves. I actually find bookshelves offensive. Let me explain.
I believe that books are meant to be read. Savored, loved, enjoyed. That can't happen if they're sitting on a book shelf in your living room.
I think book shelves are selfish and egotistical. LOOK AT ALL THE MANY MANY BOOKS I'VE READ. SEE HOW SMART AND WELL-READ I AM. Book shelves belong in a time before public libraries when the wealthy kept libraries of their own in their homes. Leather-backed titles and ladders on rails. That time is passed. (Thank you, Ben Franklin.)
No offense if you have bookshelves.
But seriously - give that shit away. Pass them on. Let them be read and savored and enjoyed over and over again. Keeping books on shelves just eludes me.
I mostly read fiction, but I don't read mysteries or horror or romance novels. I don't read anyone who has more than one shelf at the book store (that's an old hold-out rule of mine) because I don't like formulaic. I like a good story well-told. I value the writing over the story - so I don't read John Grisham, who's a great storyteller but an average writer, IMO.
I love southern writers, southern settings (especially Louisiana and most especially New Orleans) and stories in the southern tradition. I am not offended by dialogue written in dialect. I personally feel like it helps me imagine the characters. I think in words. It's nice when the words paint a picture.
I don't really read memoirs or biographies (although I did enjoy both Tina Fey and Amy Poehler's books). The only nonfiction I enjoy is historical (Sarah Vowell) or humorists essays - especially southern writers like Julia Reed, David Sedaris or Rick Bragg.
I have recently decided that I don't like a book that's purposely drawn out. Either your story inspires intrigue or it doesn't. Quit trying to force it in order to add page counts.
When the pandemic hit and I suddenly found myself stuck at home for months on end, I turned to books. I learned how to check out Kindle books from my local public library, which made reading much more affordable. According to goodreads.com, I read 15 books in 2019. As of now, I'm at 54 books for 2020. I was literally going through two or three books a week in lockdown.
The coronavirus was only the first event that would upend our cultural norms this year. As I watched national events unfold, I made a concerted effort to read more black authors. It has been enlightening and rewarding.
When I was in college, I registered for an Honors American Lit class. The first day of class, the African-American professor - with a "Lest We Forget" pin on her lapel - told the class of about 12, "There is a lot of American Literature; we're going to focus on African-American lit." Most of the class seemed okay with that. We read Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer and James Baldwin.
I mean, it was the 80s and time was limited but I've since recognized the absence of Alice Walker, Octavia E. Butler, Colson Whitehead. There's just so much to cover and truthfully - so much time to make up. Challenge yourself to do it. And demand that your library carry them.
And now a word about ebooks. If you found my opinion of book shelves to be controversial, then hold on to your hat, dear reader!
I resisted ebooks at first, as I think we all did. I considered myself a purist. I liked BOOKS. PAPER books. The
FEEL of books. The SMELL of books. Book STORES. When Carrie Bradshaw decided to get married in the New York Public Library, we were all, Yasss Queen! I've visited the NYPL and it's gorgeous. Inspirational and empowering. And festive. But that might be because I was there at Christmas time.
So I was a holdout, until two things happened to change my mind:
My older eyes started making it hard to read without really bright, direct light (which I despise) and
I realized the joy of instant gratification.
Being able to increase the font size of an ebook is a pretty great perk. But being able to download a book on a Saturday afternoon without suiting up and visiting a book store is a lazy introvert's dream!
And YES, I work for a paper company. And YES, actual books are still a thrill and a treat. But accidentally showing up at your friend's funeral on the West Bank an hour early and having a kindle book on your phone to distract you at the Starbuck's while you wait? That's pretty great, too.
This post is dedicated to Tammy Adams, who recommended a book to me that inspired a text conversation that inspired a blog post. And our friend Theresa Smith, whose funeral I showed up for an hour early.