I’ve been reading since I was four, or so they tell me. I can’t remember not reading. Words have always been my friends, and it didn’t take long for me to hop over Millie and the Cowboy (70s version of Dick and Jane) to Little House in the Big Woods.
Books provided delicious cover for me to hide in plain sight during difficult times. Family member: “Where’s Andrea?” Other family member: “Curled up in a knot, reading on her bed.” I would read until one propped arm fell asleep and I had to shift to the other.
But, in high school, I came to know “the reading list,” which contained books I would never pick for myself. Heck, I didn’t even know many of them existed–George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Herman Hesse’s Demian were not on my 14 year-old radar screen. While I ended up adoring the former, I didn’t finish the latter (and couldn’t even tell you the plot these many years later).
And so began my career as “the girl who loves to read, but who’s also prone to not finishing the book.”
First, it was just the assigned books. I would always start with the best of intentions, but if it didn’t grab me by the first 20 pages or so, it was a no go. Sometimes, I’d soldier on for a third of the book and then skip to the end. Sometimes, I’d ask a friend if they’d read it and get what I needed to pass the test. Remember, children, this was before the Internet and SparkNotes–all we had were Cliff Notes in hardcopy that cost cash money.
After formal schooling ended, I thought I was free. But, then came “the book that everyone else is recommending, and don’t you want to read it, too? You really should. Everyone else loves it.” Possession by A.S. Byatt comes to mind. I lost count of how many friends told me it was a must-read. I think one of them even bought me a copy. I never made it past page 10.
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James was highly recommended by an English professor friend. I felt deficient in American literature even though I had two English degrees, and this was the book to start with, she said. It put me to sleep more nights than not, so I finally gave up.
My proclivity to sleep through rather than read the classics activated my English major guilt center–what deficiency kept me from enjoying what everyone else clearly loved? What was the missing piece? Was my brain the equivalent of a 98-pound literary weakling?
Somehow, getting older absolved me from most of that guilt. Reading was not a competition any longer nor was it for a grade. I could go forth and make my own reading list. Or not. I could start The Life of Pi, put it down for good when the other animals start eating the zebra (sorry, spoiler alert), and not worry about the Literature Police knocking at my door. I could fall asleep twenty times reading Pride and Prejudice, and still soldier on until the end (which I did, and liked it).
I finally realized that every book is journey to somewhere, and I’m picky about where I travel. I could haul out Robert Frost right about now with his yellow wood and the road not taken. But what has made all the difference for me is knowing that books still provide delicious cover whether I finish them all or not.
(P.S. There’s no need to leave me a comment telling me how much you loved Possession or The Life of Pi–I’m still not going to finish them. Seriously.)