On Becoming a Reader of Books

I know many adults who enjoy YA literature, but today I’m looking at the opposite effect — that moment when a young person discovers real grown-up lit! Do you remember when you left your kid books behind and started reading novels for adults? I’m pretty sure the summer I turned 14 is when it happened for me.

I can’t recall much of my early independent reading, but I do remember this dorky French series at my school library about a little elf-type guy called Oui-Oui. Even then, I knew it wasn’t any good, but we had mandatory library time and it was what was on offer. Outside of school, I discovered my first Nancy Drew book, The Mystery of the 99 Steps. It had it all — a feisty female main character, a mystery to solve, and numbers (yes I love numbers but hate math, which I blame on a failing of our school system). This is also when I learned the odd-sounding English word “sleuth.”

Captivating and mathy!

It didn’t take long, though, before I tired of the Nancy Drew formula, especially the introduction where we learn about how pretty she is, that she helps her lawyer dad with cases, and that the housekeeper, Hannah, has been like a mom to her since her mother died. It gets old fast, even when you’re 11 years old. I moved on to Agatha Christie books which were definitely more compelling, even though the characters were not super fun. I was ready for more.

This is what I clearly remember — Like every summer, I was at at my dad’s family cottage in the Laurentian mountains. There weren’t many kids around and I only had one cottage friend. She was much younger than me and we probably would not have become friends, except for the fact that we were there. Her parents always seemed quite glamourous to me: her father worked for a cosmetics company so the place was full of perfumes and lotions, and her mother was a busty blonde who maybe worked in fashion. They were positively shiny compared to my set of crunchy granolas. It never occurred to me to notice whether or not they read books. But they HAD books.

There I was at my friend’s “cottage” (a.k.a. 4-season carpeted house with 2 bathrooms) browsing the bookshelf. I picked up a book called Roots and asked her mom if I could borrow it. I would read it and bring it back, I promised. “Keep it,” she said.

A steal of a deal at $4! Irving, John. A Prayer for Owen Meany. Toronto: Ballantine Books, 1990.

So I sat on our dock with my walkman on, trying to block out my extended family, and read Alex Haley’s epic novel about Kunta Kinte, stolen from West Africa and sold into slavery in the American South. The story, of course, was heart-wrenching and much of it was written phonetically in the patois of the slaves. It blew my mind. There was no turning back after that; I wanted more literature.

It was probably a year or so later that I reached another turning point in my reading journey. One day, as I was flipping channels, author John Irving caught my eye. He was on PBS and the interview drew me in completely. (To this day, I love listening to authors talk about what they do — I’m looking at you CBC’s Writers and Company.) Shortly thereafter, my dad was heading out to Halifax for a conference and asked if I wanted anything while he was there. Knowing that he would be spending hours in that city’s awesome used bookstores, I told him I’d like something by John Irving.

He came back with A Prayer for Owen Meany… and we were off! Irving quickly became my preferred author as I read through his oeuvre, The Hotel New Hampshire being a particular favourite.

One thing that strikes me as I recall these experiences is how serendipitous my reading was then. It seems I was always randomly perusing shelves — just finding books and giving them a try. Now I’m much more likely to consult online reviews and order items from the library, or store, with the click of a button. (Oh no! I’m having another I love the internet but the internet ruined everything moment.)

I’ll leave you with an anecdote: At age 18, I visited London, UK, with a friend. We happened (by chance, again) to go by a bookstore where John Irving would be having a signing in a couple of days. We found our way back for the event. Wanting to make a connection to the great man, and knowing he had a residence in Toronto, I said something like “I came all the way from Canada to see you.” He guffawed and I felt so dumb (and for years after). I do still have that signed first edition of A Son of the Circus on my bookshelf, though.

 

Comments

  1. Love this – I followed a similar path from Nancy Drew through Agatha Christie to actual literature. Now I have a reading list a mile long and I’ll never get through it – but I still love the beauty of a well written book. And agreed – John Irving is awesome!

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