They’re Not Just Books to Me…

Why do I read?

The question occurred to me after I finished chapter 10 of Jo Nesbo’s gripping mystery The Thirst. The obvious answer, as it may be for you too, is that in reading fiction I like to be entertained, escape reality, and experience pleasure in the exploits of fictional characters, and in the case of non-fiction, I enjoy reading about real people and ideas that stimulate and challenge me. I’ve come to like Harry Hole, a recurring police detective in Nesbo’s murder mysteries.

He’s bright, skilled at what he does, intuitive, caring, a recovering addict, and like me he has a dark side that he intermittently and reluctantly embraces. I identify with him.

Ask yourself: Why do you read? You’re reading this piece so it’s likely books have played and continue to play an important role in your life—what is it?

My earliest memories involve the simple adventures of Dick and Jane, Spot, Tim and Puff. The large typeface and colorful pictures made words come alive. The Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys series introduced me to fictitious peers whose adventures I wanted in my life.

I recall the excitement of pre-teen years, walking to the public library in Hastings-on-Hudson, library card in my pocket, to check out as many books as I could carry the half mile back to my home on South Drive. The prospect of new adventures and discoveries outweighed walking on hot summer days, defying threatening thunderstorms or the biting cold winter afternoons along slippery sidewalks. If I close my eyes and let my mind wander back to those early stories of Dick and Jane, Bert and Nan, Flossie and Freddie, and Frank and Joe as well as the Young Patriot biographies I plucked from the library shelves I can’t recall many details of their tales. What I do remember is the sense of awe and wonderment that words created and the time and place when the magic occurred.

Books unshackled my soul from my present-day existence and catapulted me to places I hadn’t known I wanted to be. I didn’t understand this when I was young, but the allure of stories coupled with the time and place in which they entered my life has been a wonderful decades-long journey.

The earliest such memory is being nestled in my father’s lap when his hand enveloped mine to guide me along the lines of print, then point my index finger to the pictures the words described. Another involves my grandfather reading from one of the three daily newspapers he devoured as I sat next to him on the couch. I became mesmerized by his voice and the way he folded and unfolded the sheets of newspaper. I recall the embassy schoolyard in Oslo, Norway, where my classmates and I regaled each other with the latest goings-on of the Bobbsey twins and Hardy boys. I recall the darkened “cave” I created (when I was supposed to be sleeping) by pulling the bedcovers over my head, turning on the flashlight and opening Captain Blood or whichever of Rafael Sabatini’s sea-faring adventures had become my secret afterhours companion.

The walk from my home to the Hastings library can be recounted, almost step for step—the ballfield and playground, surrounding homes, storefronts and churches all embedded in my memory. So too are trips to Norway, a solo summer adventure when I was fifteen, and the other at twenty when my college friend David and I spent the summer in Denmark employed by the company where my father worked as a consultant—books filled the spare time, but for me are remembered less for their content than for the circumstances and environments in which they were read.

I carry books with me to the office, pack them when I travel, and surround myself with them in my home office. It has been a life-long love affair with dust-jackets, pages and bindings, stories, and the places where I was touched by them—on planes, trains, autos, and once while riding a motorcycle, in hotel beds, rest areas, and national and local parks, over drinks or during meals at roadside taverns and five-star restaurants, on mountaintops and valleys, indoors as well as outdoors—books and their stories are a constant in my life.

On occasion, I’ve left an unfinished book on the plane, in a hotel room, or at my office mailbox with the inscription: I tried but couldn’t get into this. Hope you can. Roger

They’re my faithful companions, and though many of the stories have faded over time I recall the feelings stirred in my soul when I read them—a grounding in place and time.

Beyond the carved Norwegian trolls that grace my office desk, pressed against the not too distant wall, are five of the baker’s dozen book shelves that occupy all but a few linear feet of my small home office and waiting area. When I swivel in my desk chair four more of the thirteen are within reach—two each to my right and left. If the storage closet next to the office entrance could be gutted of files and office supplies I’d cover its walls with book-lined shelves.

At some point in my for-pleasure reading life, turning the pages to follow the plot and characters became an experience grounded in time and space. I can recall authors, titles, and some storylines of the books I’ve loved reading. And there are those which I couldn’t finish and try to forget, as well as the ones I did complete only to be disappointed and left wanting.

When I visit new places or revisit familiar haunts I often find a new bookstore, or one I’ve known, where I walk among the shelves thinking: “Oh, that looks good! Maybe I’ll have time for this.” Or: “That’s one I’ve been looking forward to, I can read this one in JFK.” Or: I’ve not read one of hers in ages, and I love the way she writes.”

I’ve read Shakespeare’s plays when they were high school and college assignments. I’ve read them in later years for pleasure, and enjoyed his sonnets. And though I will revisit his magnificent writings again, it is the memory of a candlelit reading with my beloved dog that first comes to mind.  Falstaff, a fourteen-year-old Samoyed was dying, and on the night before his death I went to his bed, lit candles, poured a glass of Cabernet, and lay in silence next to him. When the time seemed right I opened my copy of one of Shakespeare’s plays to Henry lV and repeated his namesake’s words: “I would it were bedtime, Hal, and all well.”

 

photo courtesy of Dogs-reading-books

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19 Comments

  1. Colette

    Oh how familiar and inviting , your love of books, stories, and inspiring ideas. I remember hours in the old Hastings library, hiding from the librarians who in those days demanded silence. Happily that is no longer the expectation in libraries for children. I recall visiting a high school friend’s home, and being so enamored and envious of his father’s home library with floor to ceiling book shelves filled to capacity with many volumes, comfortable leather chairs and a working fireplace. I still wish to have such a room in my home, even though, my reality precludes that possibility for now. I share your love of reading for all the reasons you express. I love the scenes you describe, nestled in your father’s lap with a book, next to your grandfather with his newspapers, and especially right now, laying next to your beloved Falstaff and reading aloud to him during his final night . May you continue to read and write your heart out , mon ami.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Colette,
      Thank you for adding the anecdote about the silence-demanding librarians, and formidable creatures they were! I can picture the room you describe, and easily place myself in a leather chair, fire ablaze and book in hand. Thanks for reading and commenting.
      If I had Methuselah’s longevity I’d still come up short, well short, of all the books I’d like to read and authors I want to discover. But, let’s keep making a dent in the stack.
      Roger

      Reply
  2. JoAnne Kurman

    What a marvelous post, Roger. It brought memories to mind and an ache in my heart of some unnamed nostalgia. My love affair with books started at age four. No one taught me. Just picked up Dick and Jane and was off to the races!

    I could see what you wrote, your beloved doggie, hearing you speak Shakespeare out loud in the candlelit room. I love your love of books, the written word and what it has and continues to mean to you. I fear I haven’t been reading in the last few years after having read every book Hermann Hesse wrote. No connection to not reading now. Damien is my favorite book to date. I want to read more classics. What are your favorite classic authors?

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Jo Anne,
      Hermann Hesse was a favorite author who I couldn’t get enough of when class texts, required, “should” have been demanding my attention–I’m glad he did and they didn’t! There are so many but Dickens stands out. I loved the way my high school teachers taught his works, and the stories captivated me–issues of right and wrong, characters who struggled (like the boy I was), and I loved it. I imagined going to the gallows for someone or something I loved. Twain made me want to paint a fence and build a raft. Dumas made me want to become a musketeer, and Jean Valjean justified my seven year-olds foray into shoplifting–when I read Hugo years later.
      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts,
      Roger

      Reply
  3. roger marumn

    Several readers wrote, privately, that the website wasn’t opening to their comments–so here’s a test run.
    Roger

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      The website passed the test!!!
      Roger

      Reply
  4. Larry

    Your post conjures many memories and the powerful influence of books — from the smell and weight of those old, leather-bound, black and white National Geographics from the early 1900s with their pictorial descriptions of distant places and cultures; the biographies of heroes and scientists of the elementary school library; the countless stacks (and of course the lions) experienced in that special trip to the New York City Library; the enlivening of history, from Scott to Kenneth Roberts to Dickens to Steinbeck and more; to the expansion of imagination with Azimov and Arthur C Clark. What diversity we can experience through reading! But while it been a wonderful escape to follow Wallander’s adventures (especially on long plane flights), I find the past decade has found me gravitating to non-fiction: “The Worst Hard Times” for history, “Writings on the Wall” by Kareem Abdul Jabbar for commentary; and now “Sapiens: a brief history of humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari for reflective science. Thanks for making me stop and reflect on this ongoing love affair.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Larry,
      Thank you for spending time with my words and thoughts. Those lions always fascinated me, and still do when I’m in NYC and nearby the library–embedded childhood memories along with roasted chestnuts, and 55th Street in Brooklyn. You’re correct about the diversity we experience through author’s works, fiction and nonfiction alike.
      Roger

      Reply
  5. Bette

    I must say I was no fan of Dick and Jane but did love the colorful drawings illustrating their daily adventures with Spot and Sally. But give me the little black box of Prang watercolors, a brush and some paper and I was in heaven. I’d go to the small library on Foothill Boulevard in Sunland with my dad where he looked for do it yourself books or a Robert Traver novel. I was relegated to the lower shelves where I could reach the big picture books. I remember the beautiful illustrations and the colorful photographs which conveyed a story without words and took me to far off places. I remember my father standing in the middle of the living room holding a copy of “Dangerous Dan Mcgrew” reading aloud the sometimes hilarious stories of the Yukon. There weren’t many books in our home but my mother could make up the best fairy tales and cuddling with her was a favorite memory of mine.
    While in high school I did student service in the library where I learned book binding and It was there that I read “Seventeenth Summer” by Maureen Daly and I too was off to the races. “Rebecca”, “Jane Eyre”‘ and “Wutheting Heights” soon followed. To date “Pride and Prejudice” top the list.
    I really can’t say that I travel with a book or even have an unfinished novel at my bedside. (I do need to finish “What Happend” by Hillary Clinton). My studio is filled with many biographies of famous artists, coffee table sized tomes filled with art from around the world and books by current plein air painters. But you’ll never catch me without my paints, brushes, canvases and camera on my excursions away from home. It must have been those early book illustrations that sparked something in me to tell my stories without words.

    Keep blogging right along….a joy to read and you continue to stir so many memories in all of us. Bette

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Bette,
      Your plein air painting is beautiful, and when I see your work a story always emerges within the frame. I loved to draw as much as read when I was a youngster, and as much as being outside was my priority it was often difficult to leave my book of drawings. I think you do a phenomenal job of “telling my stories without words.” Several of your paintings grace the walls of my two offices, and frequently elicit comments of praise and pleasure.
      Roger

      Reply
  6. Rich Hope

    Wonderful writing Roger. I think your love of reading has served you very well in your writing.
    My memories return of my many visits to the Naperville Public Library and also reading my History Book Club selections in high school study hall, of course after assignments were completed. Non-fiction for me with Cornelius Ryan’s WWII trilogy as well as Bruce Catton’s on the Civil War. Biographies still fascinate me and Doris Kearns Goodwin has provided excellent stories and insight for Lincoln and Roosevelt/Taft. Michael Korda wrote a fascinating biography of T.E.Lawrence, a fascinating hero. I just completed reviewing Freeman’s R.. Lee biographies and then Korda’s for an updated perspective. I find these forays into history can also equip me with new perspectives that are helpful as “old news” can suddenly become “new news” in the issues of the day. I must not forget the Hebrew Bible and New Testament but not sure to categorize as Fiction itr Non-Fiction!
    Thanks for your post
    Rich

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Rich,
      Old and new news, a cycle wherein the lines are frequently blurred, as you suggest, and reading helps us see that what we believe to be new is often a reincarnation of what was before. That’s quite an impressive list of readings–must mean California has gone to 30 hour days! Thank you for your encouragement and support, for reading and commenting.
      Roger

      Reply
  7. Emily

    Beautiful post, Roger. And dear to my heart–books, dogs, quiet moments. Couldn’t help getting a little teared up at the end. Thank you for reminding me that I should turn off the TV and curl up with a good book again!

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Emily,
      Thank you for reading and commenting, and your kind words of encouragement. I too shed a few tears as I wrote. Curling up with a book has such intimacy attached to it, something I never feel when I watch TV. Maybe a Kindle is in my future, but for now–no way. There are enough screens in my life!
      Roger

      Reply
  8. Rick Neu

    Thanks, Roger! I needed this post.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Rick,
      Thank you for your comment. This love affair we have with books and the memories they stir is wonderful, and I know you enjoy the entirety of the experience as I do.
      Roger

      Reply
  9. yourrel4 (Post author)

    A friend, who wished to be anonymous, wrote about the books she and her husband had lovingly read and shared, but expressed concern and disappointment about the number of purchased and unread books in their library shelves (familiar to me). Always important, in all things, to reach beyond our grasp, and in the case of unread books–there’s a reader waiting somewhere for what we don’t or can’t get to.
    Roger

    Reply
  10. Carmen Apodaca

    Life has taken me on a roller coaster ride these past months and I have had trouble keeping up with my book club readings. I thank you for your memories because they have awakened mine. Hasn’t every child kept a flashlight for those secret night reads? I loved Anna from Canada because she lived in a country I did not know. And, the cover drawing depicted a girl with long black curls like mine. Read all of Nancy Drew and found great excitement in her adventures. Of late I have found I like Audio books because listening to and telling stories is a great love of mine. My favorite scenes from Out of Africa were where they would sit around a fire and she would tell stories. She always had them say the first line. I have done that and still do with my grandchildren when they sleep over. We don’t need the lights on to read a story so it
    also serves to soothe them into dream land. I received a compliment from my nine year old granddaughter after my story she said, “You should write children’s stories.” Wouldn’t that be fun. Well enough of me, again, thank you for sharing your love of the written word.

    Reply
    1. yourrel4 (Post author)

      Carmen,
      Yes, secret nights for children are wonderful ways to explore new and old worlds, and discover “themselves” in the process. Fond memories for you, and facilitating the creation of them for your grandchildren. Do avid readers and storytellers ever grow up?
      Thanks for reading and commenting,
      Roger

      Reply

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