Memoir

What I read: This author’s early literary influences

Someone asked me the other day what books I read growing up, and for some reason I struggled to come up with an acceptable answer. All that came to mind while I was under that spotlight was the boxes of trashy romance novels I used to get from my maternal grandmother. My high school best friend and I used to devour those novels, often reading together and stopping occasionally for one of us to read aloud to the other a particularly cheesy passage while giggling uncontrollably. While those were good times, my romance novel stage barely scratches the surface of the richness of literature I was exposed to in my early reading years.

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The Witch of Blackbird Pond is one of my all-time favorite novels.

As a child growing up in a rural area with no access to a library, the books I read were  limited to whatever I could get my hands on. I loved reading Richard Scary, the Sweet Pickle books, and Dr. Seuss at the doctor’s office. I don’t remember if we had any picture books at home before I started kindergarten and gained access to the Scholastic Book Club. If we did, they were few and far between. I think we had three of the Sweet Pickle books, but I’m not sure where they came from. At some point in my early years, my dad invested in a full set of encyclopedias, and that’s what I remember him reading to me in the beginning.

My paternal grandmother had an old set of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series that my dad also read to my siblings and me. I also remember Grandma Webster reading a much-loved copy of Winnie the Pooh to me when I was little. She had lots of books and a room with shelves and shelves of old National Geographic magazines that I loved to thumb through and dream of growing up to be a world traveler. But it seems like that’s about all there was to read until I started grade school.

Once I started school, I used to rush home with my Scholastic Book Club order forms each month and beg my mom to buy me books. I wanted them all, but I was usually limited to one or two for financial reasons. I don’t remember which books I started out with or even when I first began to bring those order forms home with me. But I do know that at some point in elementary school, I became hooked on both the Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High series and couldn’t wait for each new book to come out. I also loved spooky ghost stories, which surprises me now considering I detest horror movies. I could never seem to make my new books last from one monthly order to the next but instead read them all the first week I got them. Then I would twiddle my thumbs waiting for the next batch of books to arrive.

In addition to my Scholastic books, I also acquired the occasional used book from one family member or another. I still have my old copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn as well as an early 1900s edition of Rudyard Kipling’s horribly racist Just so Stories, which has a swastika emblazoned on its hard, red cover. As an adolescent, I borrowed a friend’s copy of Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret. In my early teen years, Julie of the Wolves and The Witch of Blackbird Pond were two of my all-time favorite books. I have lost count of how many times I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, but its shredded cover can attest to the fact that it was a lot. I wonder what ever happened to my copy of Julie of the Wolves.

My first opportunity for regular library access came when I entered high school. On my first trip to the high school library, I checked out a thick copy of Gone with the Wind. I had never seen the movie but had heard a lot about it and figured I could fill in that blank in my knowledge of popular culture by reading the book. Our school librarian gave me a doubtful look as she checked the book out to me and asked me if I thought I could get through the entire text before it was due back. She was so pleased when I returned the book less than a week later – fully read – that she decided I should be Treasurer of the library club (I’m assuming no one else wanted the position). I never attended a single meeting, but she insisted I show up for the year book photo with the rest of the library club members anyway.

V.C. Andrews was an illicit pleasure that I first discovered in the high school library. I doubt my mom would have let me read those books if she had known exactly what was in them, even though her book collection was often just as racy. As I got older, I noticed that my mom had started to get a monthly book shipment from a book of the month club, and her adult books began to lure me away from my childish literary pursuits.

In the beginning, I asked for permission to read her books, and Mom would take a few moments to decide if each one was appropriate. When I asked if I could read Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bears, she seemed to think a bit longer than she had about some of my previous requests. Then she said yes, but also, “Just remember, sex isn’t like that in real life.” After that, I pretty much read whatever I wanted, including Judy Blume (both her adult and children’s books).

My mom’s club books often ranged from Mary Higgins Clark and Sidney Sheldon to Danielle Steele and Marion Zimmer Bradley. James Michener, Nora Roberts, and Barbara Taylor Bradford were also frequent book club selections, among many others that I have long forgotten.

When I was growing up, the only bookstore in town was a Christian book store. As I was finishing high school, a Wal-Mart and then later an outlet mall with a cheap bookstore came to town. I soon went through an Anne Rice phase where I eagerly awaited the release of each new book in her Taltos series. I never really cared for vampires, but I have always been a huge fan of witches and magic.

When I went to visit my cousin in New Jersey at the age of 20, I set foot inside a Barnes and Noble for the first time in my life and was in heaven. I went directly to the New Age section and bought a handful of occult books of the kind that I doubt can be purchased in the county where I grew up to this day without resorting to Amazon. I also bought every Marion Zimmer Bradley book I could get my hands on (except her Darkover books, of which I was never a fan.)

These were the books of my life, the texts that influenced my early growth as both a human being and a writer. My tastes have grown and evolved over the years since. I sometimes think about going back and rereading some of those earlier influences. But then, I worry that an updated reading might ruin them for me. I already have a far different view of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories and her family after rereading her books as an adult. I got rid of my Marion Zimmer Bradley novels after learning of the abuse allegations lodged against her by her daughter in recent years. I am occasionally tempted to revisit some of these old books, but for the most part, I don’t think I will. There are far too many new and unread books in the world to waste time rereading too much. The big question now is, “What should I read next?”

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