January 13, 2010

"Don't You Have Something Better to Read?"

Although I never actually heard my parents say, "You are what you read", I do think they believe that to be true in most cases. My mom read virtually every book we children brought into the house just to be sure of what we were putting into our heads. A book brought home often disappeared during the night and was replaced on the bedside table before we woke up in the morning. Mom would usually tell us what she thought of the book, too, especially if she didn't like it.

When I was in grade seven I made bi-weekly trips to the local library and soon became fascinated with stories about troubled young girls lacking parental support. I distinctly remember one about an overweight girl who ran away from her miserable family, and somehow got trapped on an island where she had to survive by killing and eating raccoons and such. The experience changed her, of course, and she lost a great deal of weight, which seemed to solve all her problems. While against censorship in general, my mom finally appealed to me to stop bringing home such depressing novels. I suppose they were dragging her down.

I spent many hours as a pre-teen brushing my mom's long, dark brown hair while she read to me. We made our way through several Noel Streatfield novels (my favourite), the Little House on the Prairie series and The Von Trappe family stories. When I was bored I merely had to say, "Mom, I need a book to read, and she would lead me to the floor-to-ceiling book shelves which lined the entire length of the front hall : "Here's a good one," or " You'd love the Anne books," or "How about The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe?" Mom took volume after volume off the shelf, and having read each of the books herself gave me a concise librarian's description of it. After dismissing most of the books with "Nah," I finally made my choice. My literary education then continued as I lay on the couch calling out for the meaning of this word or that, as most of the books I read were written before I was born.

Another memory lives in my mind like a short film. One afternoon I was sitting in the living room reading a magazine. My father was in the chair opposite, also reading. I soon became bored and began rifling through the rack beside my chair. Lo and behold I discovered an unfamiliar magazine: an edition of True Confessions. I picked it up and started reading a story about a young woman who goes off with a married man to a cabin in the woods...you can guess the rest. I think my fascination stemmed largely from my surprise that such smut could even get through the doors of our house, and here it was found lying cover to cover with National Geographic World and a Sharon, Lois and Bram songbook. As I soaked up the explicit descriptions of events in the story, as only a ten year old can do, I began to feel a distinct, steady sensation like a laser beam crossing the room. I looked up to meet my dad's over-the-glasses gaze which, having been a teacher and parent for many years, was a look he had perfected. He lowered his eyes slowly down to the title of my chosen literature, and then up again at me. "Don't you have anything better to read?" he asked quietly, but oh, so effectively in his deep, sonorous voice. Without a single noise from my lips, I replaced True Confessions in the rack and took up a copy of World. "That's better," he said with the trace of a smile. The next time I went to choose a magazine, True Confessions was gone. I never saw it or its kind in the house again.

After I moved out my parents turned my bedroom into a study/library and transferred all the books into it from the front hall. The study has a lovely view of the back garden where the cherry tree of my childhood bloomed until it rotted and had to be taken down. On a recent visit I had forgotten to bring a book, and asked to borrow one. My mom brought me a thick novel - a one volume edition of Robertson Davies' Salterton Trilogy. I settled down into the pullout couch for the night and began my transport into the wickedly funny world of Kingston, Ontario's intellectual society of the 1950's... Mom let me take the book home to finish.


  1. What a wonderful description of how your parents not only chanelled your choice of reading material but also supported and encouraged your pursuit of reading...and still do!

  2. What great parents. I still wonder where the magazine came from.

  3. I was the pest that had access to the Libraries of two Counties, and at any time there were at least twenty books on the go. Something I could never understand was that everyone else did not do the same.
    I never had the Censor at home but then the Irish State did that for you. For heavens sake, Joyce was on the list of banned books.

  4. Diane: My mom and I still share books and talk books all the time, and she usually likes what I recommend, too.

    Tracey: The magazine apparently belonged to my eldest sister, nine years my senior.

    Vince: You sound just like my mom! She devours books and can read a thick book like War and Peace in a weekend. I am not such a quick reader, but I do love to read!

  5. YOUR MOM ?. LMAO. I was hoping for Mysterious. :D

  6. I always had a book )or two) tucked under my arm when I was younger. We too had shelves upon shelves upon shelves of reading material that even to this day, I've not read all of the volumes.

    I still read books, usually three at a time. One on my nightstand, one next to my chair and one in my car while waiting for my daughter from school.

    I've questioned some of the books that have been required reading for her at school. The last was about a misbehaved boy with ADHD that lived with his grandmother since his father was jailed and his mother in an institution? Is that a 'good' book for a 5th grade student at a private school?

    We should have asked your mom.


  7. Ah True Confessions - i remember that magazine as well. the book i remember most from my childhood was about the NASA space program and it's endeavor to fly to the moon. it had one very astonishing statement; Some day men may not simply land on the moon but walk upon the surface as well.

  8. I too was addicted to books as a child. (I still am.)

    This is a beautiful recollection of a childhood that many would envy. I have had to work so much harder to cultivate a love of reading in my children. They have so many distractions.

  9. Nancy: I know what you mean about the questionable choices for required reading. There is a valid reason why the classics endure. So nice to hear from you again.

    Eloist: To think, that concept was once far off in the future! My husband (older than I) watched the landing on the moon in his grade 1 class.

    Carolyn: Thanks so much. Last night I was visiting with two bookaholic friends who are having the same issue with their three small boys. They like to be read to, but not to read to themselves. That is a place to start from, at least - to get them interested in good stories.

  10. I used to read all the time. If a book was good enough to really get me hooked, I'd read it cover to cover in two days. I need to make time to read again.


I'd love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!