We Are What We Read
I’m lucky because my boys, ages 6 and 9, still let me read to them each night before bed. They’ve graduated from children’s picture books to novels that develop psyches – Narnia, Harry Potter, the wild, wondrous world of Roald Dahl.
Recently I convinced them to let me read one of my own childhood favorites, From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a mouthful of a title that has stuck with me since I read it when I was probably just a little older than my oldest son is now.
At first I wondered if the book would hold up. Would the story be as absolutely captivating as I remembered? Would it hold my boys’ wall-bouncing attention, more recently used to fast-action novels like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series?
But as I read the book aloud, I found myself quickly swept into my own memory. Almost at once I recognized myself in the main character, Claudia Kincaid, a perfectionist, a planner, intent in school, arrogant about grammar, with a determination and innate curiosity that only well-planned but ill-advised action could satisfy. Claudia sets her sights on New York City for a runaway escape from her invisible life. New York represents independence and adventure to her and promises to “change her” in some indelible way. It was this same expectation that I embraced many years ago, so long that I’d forgotten its origins until I reread these pages.
Claudia and her brother Jamie spend a week hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. To this day, I still look for the 16th century canopy bed where they slept and expect to find the sprite-laced bronze fountain where they bathed and gathered wishing pennies to fund their adventure, though both have been removed from the museum’s exhibit halls for at least a decade.
Somehow this novel informed my childhood and determined my trajectory, as did others I’ve since placed on my sons’ bookshelves: Island of the Blue Dolphins about an Indian girl who survives alone on a Pacific Island. Perhaps my passion for unfamiliar subsistence cultures stems from that book written 50 years ago.
Then there’s The Secret Garden, the very first book I ever stayed up all night to read. I can still feel the embrace of its Gothic setting, the constancy of mists drifting over the lonely moors. I see Mary Lennox arriving orphaned from India, abandoned and neglected, wandering the cold, echoing halls of a mansion haunted by disembodied moans. Then I feel the moist breath of perilous, unfolding friendship and freedom, and the mystery and joy of the rich soil of the secret garden.
How can I help but recognize in all this the first kernels of my own imaginative urgings – characters haunted by abandonment or longing for escape, mostly women who make of their lives what they can against odds and often alone? These themes are deeply seeded in my own stories, as are their atmospheres, cultures and climates filled with loneliness and uncertainty.
I am compiling a list of the books I’ve adored, whose reading burned impressions in my memory that surely I am following in my work and life even now. How will it feel to reread A Tree Grows In Brooklyn after living in that borough for those many years? Of that story, I particularly recall that the only books in Francie Nolan’s childhood home were the Bible and Shakespeare. I recall gobbling Shakespeare like a greedy beggar not long after reading her tale.
And what about A Wrinkle in Time – a novel so keenly influential on my young, impressionable mind that, sometime in my mid-20s, I found myself climbing the creaking stairs of an Upper West Side convent to absorb the sage guidance of its author, Madeleine L’Engle? She directly and indirectly influenced the path of my creative life. How will it feel to reopen those pages and understand the depths of an eleven-year-old girl’s wonder?
Make a list of your own. Go back and reread some that still flash in your memory. You might find a key to your own creative heart, tucked away in a dusty corner where it had almost been forgotten.
And I remember the wondrous moment when, walking through the stacks in my college library, I came across a slim blue volume called “Renascence.” I don’t know why I was moved to pick it up, but I did, and I read the first few lines:
“All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked the other way,
And saw three islands in a bay…”
I sat down on the floor between the stacks and read the poem until the end:
“The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,–
No higher than the soul is high…..”
And my life changed.
I have to admit that I stole the book from the library. It still has the call number stamped in gold on its cover.
I was sixteen.
Let’s see…there was this childhood illustrated biography series of American historical figures. I used to take two of them out of the school library every day and read them at night, before returning them the next morning. I remember reading about the Swamp Fox (Francis Marion), Alexander Hamilton, and all the early Presidents. There was also The Great Brain series that I memorized. And anything about NASA, airplanes, American history, and baseball. It amazes me how much of the facts I read in the books (Ty Cobb had a .367 career batting average, Sputnik was launched in 1957 and the loser of Saratoga was Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne) I retain from my childhood reading.
Isn’t it true that we are what we read? And maybe additionally, we are what we watch? I’m sure that this is why it’s so important that we’re careful not to consume too much (if any?) of the “Negative Nancy News” that is on 24/7. And it’s also part of the reason why I started the blog that I have been writing to for the past couple of months.
With Love and Gratitude,
The Intentional Sage
What a lovely mother you are, and how lucky your children are to have you.
How about I Heard the Owl Call My Name, perhaps when they are a bit older?
When my boys were younger, I put a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on each of their pillows. It worked.
Maria Clara Paulino
And, as I have been thinking of cities, I thought of Orwell: “The books one reads in childhood, and perhaps most of all the bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments throughout the rest of life, and which in some cases can survive a visit to the real countries which they are supposed to represent.”