Monday, June 24, 2013

For the best vacation ever- trip the book fantastic

 “She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.”
~ Louisa May Alcott, A Story of Experience

"The Book of Daniel"-E.L. Doctorow
When I was four-years-old, my Aunt Catherine, an elementary school teacher, bought me a ticket on the Reading Railroad when she taught me to read and I can’t get off.  Nor do I want to.  I have read in planes trains and automobiles; in libraries, lecture halls and the labor rooms.  In fact, our daughter’s birth was accompanied by the word music of E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, a mesmerizing novel which I finished just as a maternity nurse wheeled me into a labor room at Magee-Woman’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, PA.  

Three years later, at the same hospital, and fresh on a Super Bowl X victory (Steelers 21, Cowboys 17), our son entered this world while a Celtic tune hummed through my head. The day before his birth, I had finished Leon Uris’s Trinity.

Books are my brain food pyramid with four nutritional groups: Information, Ideas, Escape and Engagement. They are my instant getaway when I need a Mental Myopia break from the highs and lows of my daily life, and they are the reason my sleep is unbalanced.  Sometimes I’m not sure whether I live to read or read to live.

About fifteen years ago, I was waiting outside of Borders for my husband to appear with his armload of books. I hoisted myself up onto a stone ledge surrounding some shrubbery and opened Anna Quindlen’sHow Reading Changed My life. As one of her most fervent fans (Black and Blue, One True Thing, Object Lessons), I planned on using this memoir in my English classes to urge my recalcitrant readers to buy a ticket on the Reading Railroad. I never expected her words would punch me in the stomach with a Déjà vu experience.
"Anna Quindlen "How Reading Changed My Life"

She described how one of her greatest pleasures was to sprawl in a club chair in her living room and lose herself in the characters’ escapades and emotions in that day’s novel. Quindlen’s mother’s mantra, “It’s a beautiful day. All of your friends are outside,” would burst Anna’s book bubble as effectively as my new kitten’s claws would a balloon.

When I read these words, my heart thumped against my ribs, my hands shook and the hair on the nape of my neck jumped to attention. Had Anna Quindlen somehow mined my brain for memories? From the type of chair to its location by the fireplace to the way she flopped in it-her head on one arm and her legs hanging over the sides of the other- to her mother’s words, she was describing any vacation or weekend day from my life.

Like Anna, I, too was a normal kid. I had my sisters and a plethora of friends to accompany me through real-life. We’d build forts in the woods where we’d wage battle on the boys’ citadels, go on day-long bike hikes-alas, they were the cause of three of my four concussions- explore abandoned houses and new construction on the college campus and bring Nancy Drew dramas to life.

“I don't believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book.”
~ J.K. Rowling

Still…still, each and every day I’d always crawl back into the pages of a book. Every Monday afternoon, I’d stroll to the town library four blocks away for an armload of books to get me through the next seven days. Oh, how I loved curling up in one of leather chairs and dig into Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery or another story of the trials and tribulations of a fictional counterpart while surreptitiously chewing on a Sugar Daddy caramel taffy lollipop. Outside, a summer shower pelted  the blacktop streets creating an acrid asphalt steam that would try, but fail to cling to the tail of the refreshing rain-drenched air.

Glass Coke bottle sizes
Some afternoons, my friends and I would gather on one of our porches and spread out the books that we had bought through those monthly book-buying flyers that teachers handed out during the school year. While sipping our 8 or 12 ounce bottles of Coke and munching on penny candy from the local Mom and Pop store on the corner, The Sweet Shop, or a slice of pizza from Harry’s Pizza down the street, we’d spark deals by enthusing about the books we wanted to barter.

As I grew up, boys took over the Number 1 spot on my list of favorite things. It didn’t take me too many close encounters of the not for me kind- guys who read only the sports pages of The Indiana Evening Gazette or The Pittsburgh Press-to realize that I was more attracted to Renaissance boys. They wanted to talk about books and ideas as well as play sports and chat about Pirate baseball and Steeler football.

“A house without books is like a room without windows.”
~ Horace Mann

Although we didn’t have the time or mental energy to read for pleasure during college(me) and college followed by graduate school (him), my husband and I carted boxes of books into our first apartment after we married. This drill multiplied with each of our subsequent fifteen moves, including the 40+ boxes of books the movers lugged into our current home in 1995.

Considering the thousands of books stuffed into floor to ceiling shelves in every room but the living room, I shudder to think how many boxes will leave with us when we downsize next year. My nightmares include  multiple trips to libraries and used book stores.

Not for one day after the age of four did I doubt that books would form the backbone of my life. My daydreams during college education classes took me to classrooms where I saw myself surrounded by students, each and every one of them as avid about the magic of words that I was.  Although these dreams shattered when I smacked into the Reality Wall of teaching, I never gave up trying to turn my charges into bookaholics.

I piled one double-shelf bookcase on top of another in the back of my classroom, filled them with books my husband, children and I had read and wanted to share and urged my students to read, read, read.  My heart sang when a few chose a novel on Reading Fridays that so pulled them into the story  that they wanted to keep on reading when we had to move on to another segment.  And when students stopped by after class or during lunch to talk about a book that enthralled them, I found myself so captivated by their experiences that I’d put down my own novel to listen to them.

The other day, an article in The Herndon Patch caught my eye, Suggested Summer Reading Lists for Your 6th-12th Grader, by the editor, Jennifer van der Kleut (  Her short article included links to the county’s reading lists for 6th-12th graders, lists that were adjuncts to those required by individual schools.  My anticipation spiked as I clicked on the various links, especially those for high school kids. 

“Wow!” I enthused as I skimmed the extensive topics that I could research on those days when I wanted to find a good read but didn’t have time to search through the Amazon or Barnes and Noble sites. Nirvana!
This thought was quelled when those ever-present reality checkers dumped a metaphoric bucket of icy water on my head and chortled, “Do you really think that kids will actually click on a topic, not to mention scrutinize the Internet for a few book possibilities?”

“Be awesome! Be a book nut!”
~ Dr. Seuss

Khaled Hosseini- "And the Mountains Echoed"
“Yes!” I flung back as I shook away the taunt, even though, after 30+ years teaching I knew that the majority of  teens would wait till the end of summer, if at all, to crack open even one book cover.

“Yes!” I retorted, believing that at least one book from one of the topics would hook the attention of each young person in the county.

“Yes!” I shouted, as I held up The Gate Thief by Orson Scott card in one hand and Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline in the other while balancing And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini on my head.

“Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home.”
~ Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life

And what a voyage they offer.

Until next week, Happy Reading,

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