“Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books” The NYT article title captured my attention. I admire Obama, know he is an avid reader, and was curious what books he’d recommend. Works by Lincoln, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired him.
Check √ They go on my list to be read or reread.
Wherever I’ve lived I’ve had books around me–old favorites, library books, both current and overdue. Today our collection includes exchange books from our community center and books on Kindle. But imagine having a copy of the Gettysburg address in your house? Obama could wander into the Lincoln Bedroom to read it.
Taking time to just sit and let ideas filter up about this love of reading, I’m caught in a memory. It’s 6:00 am. In my childhood home, kids don’t get up until one of the parents is up. The little girl reaches down to the foot of her bed for a well-worn picture book, The Funny Bunny. She can’t really read like grownups but her reading is good enough for her. Besides the pictures of a sweet bunny hopping through the underbrush, sniffing flowers, and looking at clouds is enough to have her be so absorbed that she doesn’t shift from lying down until the bustle of energy that is her father comes into the room, rolls up the shades, and says, “Okay, uppa-doo.”
The little girl was me and books were a way to enter a day, or leave where I was, and travel just about anywhere. Funny Bunny was the favorite when I was five; Trixie Belden led the way in my preteens. Then when I was just thirteen an event occurred that opened up hours of learning, escape, and solitary adventure through books.
I had been sick for several days–feeling really tired, hurt all over, sore throat. Plain old yucky. When the visit to the doctor resulted in a diagnosis of mononucleosis, it was still a puzzle. What the heck was mononucleosis? But it gave some small credence to my drama of feeling just awful. I was hospitalized for what seemed like forever. Then home recuperation for months.
I confess that after I felt better but still had no energy, I loved it. The house was quiet and still. Mom and Dad at work, sisters at school. I made pancakes for breakfast, watched every black-and-white movie on TV – think Laura, Meet Me in St. Louis, The River of No Return, Rear Window, and Miranda (from 1948, for goodness sake).
Those were movies that planted the seeds for appreciating snappy dialogue, meaningful glances, and over-the-top drama. Television did not have 24-hour programming. In fact, it was pretty sporadic programming, with zigzag lines or a circular target signifying no shows at all.
Then I wandered the house and discovered the lure and magic of words. Anna Karenina, War and Peace (yes, I had lots of hours). I pored over the words and woodblock illustrations in Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Looking back I have to think that my months of home education started me on the path to being a writer. How did Daphne du Maurier think up the plot ideas for Rebecca or Jamaica Inn? Just who was Daphne du Maurier? How did the books get filled with such beautiful sentences? “I wish I was a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls.” Imagine how that got the attention of a thirteen-year-old curled with the book, still in her pj’s, and hair in braids. This curiosity captures my attention today. When we sit down for our almost nightly movie, my iPad is right by me to Google the screenwriters, trace the story back to the original authors, check out the films locations (Vancouver seems to be pretty popular).
I’m sure my hours of reading not only taught facts and information, but also helped me become a fast reader, and an intuitive speller. You may have this too. It’s the I’ve read this word before and know how to spell it feeling. Reading made me a lover of crisp dialogue and visual cues in writing.
And still books save me.
The last two months I’ve been humbled by shingles and its subsequent nerve pain. The activities of the first month consisted of crying, taking hot baths, cold baths, sitting up to sleep, and accepting hot drinks and meds from my husband, aka the temporary nurse, cook, caregiver, and chauffeur.
Once I could focus and yet not be active, I reached for words. Our house is a stockpile of books–favorites, classics we’ve collected, new additions–A Man Called Ove, The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, Lean In, and Alan Brennert’s latest, Honolulu.
I’m apt to pick up any book Alan Brennert writes because he was born in New Jersey and I lived in New Jersey for thirty-five years. His Palisades Park evoked so many aspects of my adopted state and caused me to split my love of NYC with a kinship as a “Jersey girl.” This year we’re finally going to Hawaii. And that’s just the personal stuff. His characters capture my attention and heart. His heroines are believable and admirable.
In the New York Times interview Mr. Obama stated he used books to shift gears “to get out of my own head.” What books help you shift gears?
Reading Lean In while recuperating has brought more than one new aha, such as the possibility that couples can have more cultural acceptance of a significant other to take care of the newborn while she works, and a new generation can also find viable answers to the question, What would do if you were not afraid?
Books are sharpening my writing tools for better sentence structure and vocabulary. Along those lines, I’ve got a brand new word. Bildungsroman. What a great word! It means a coming of age novel. Sure you could say, “I’m writing a coming of age novel.” But come on, just once, let bildungsroman roll off your tongue. What a trip!
Ethel Lee-Miller blogs regularly about words, the writing life, people who write, and is always on the lookout for seedling ideas for stories.
Photo: thanks again to Samantha and Charlie