Habitual Reading


“It’s called reading. It’s how people install new software into their brains.” – Unknown

One fall, I was in the middle of my beginning-of-the-school-year pitch about the eighth graders’ reading log, a requirement of our curriculum, when I heard myself say, “A reading log is a great lifelong habit to begin. Wouldn’t it be fun to look back some day and see what you read in eighth grade, or any year of your life?” As I said these words, I stopped short. Really, wouldn’t I love to have a list of all the books I’d read year after year?

Well, it was way, way too late to list the books I’d read in eighth grade. But, even though I’d squandered years of list-free reading, I vowed to start right then. I bought a little journal and began my geeky little habit.

That was in 1997. I’ve filled three journals (I just started my fourth) with hundreds of short synopses and opinions on every book I’ve read over the past eighteen years. This afternoon, I curled up on the couch in my sunroom and paged through every one. It felt like going through old photo albums, where one pauses to remember a long-ago vacation or family celebration. Instead of “Did I really wear that?” or “Aw, look how beautiful the lake was” or “Gee, wasn’t it always fun to see the cousins”, today I reminisced and revisited old friends on the printed page.

Back in ‘97, my entries were heavy with young adult selections as I tried to keep up with the newest books for my eighth graders. A good book for young adults is a good book, period. I remembered with pleasure reading Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, Sharon Creech’s Bloomability, Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, Edward Bloor’s Tangerine. I often told my students that the best books on my classroom shelves were the ones that were a bit tattered, because that meant they were read by lots of kids. Today, it made me smile to picture the frayed edges of old favorites in the hands of an engrossed teenager back in Room 232.

Like the familiar faces in an old photo album, authors I’ve loved popped up over and over again. Just how many books by Elizabeth Berg, or Anita Shreve, or Jacqueline Winspear have I read? Some people collect Kate Spade handbags; I snap up anything by Ann Patchett or Anna Quindlen.

I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith in 1999 and The Great Gatsby in 2007, finally getting around to these classics. In high school we were assigned Pride and Prejudice over the summer and were given a test about it on the first day of school with no discussion or instruction. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered the delights of Jane Austen, and my journals include Emma and Persuasion, two Austen gems.

Not every book I’ve read has been a winner, even some by authors I like. A couple of duds were Doublebind by Chris Bohjalian and The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, but both authors have redeemed themselves with some great stories: Bohjalian’s The Light in the Ruins and Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. While I’ve generally avoid chick-lit and schmaltz, I discovered that I’d read The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks. Must have been desperate that day.

So many titles made me relive the lively conversations with my book club friends as we hashed out our favorites and not-so-favorites. Today I remembered how much we loved The Well and The Mine by Gin Phillips, how we sympathized with Olive Kitteridge, how we scoffed at One thousand White Women by Jim Fergus, and how fascinated we were by The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. When I came across Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks, I was drawn back to my friend Joanna’s Cape Cod terrace with my teacher pals, discussing this historical fiction set on Martha’s Vineyard before we headed off on our island excursion.

In one of my recent favorite books, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, the main character states that he can tell a lot about a person by finding out what they read. I don’t know what my list reveals about me, other than that I tend to read historical fiction, contemporary realistic fiction, often about families, memoirs and mysteries. You won’t find sci-fi, fantasy, or espionage anywhere in my journals.

I’m listing a bunch of goodies I’ve been reminded of today. If you’re looking for something to read, I’d recommend any of them. And, as soon as I post this, I have Sarah Gruen’s The Water’s Edge waiting for me.

Plainsong and Eventide; Kent Haruf

A Ship Made of Paper; Scott Spencer

You Remind Me of You; Dan Chaon

The Year We Left Home; Jean Thompson

Travel Writing; Peter Ferry

March; Geraldine Brooks

Abundance; Sena Jeter Nastlund

The Distant Hours; Kate Morton

The Post-Birthday World; Lionel Shriver (Thanks, Maureen and Kath!)

The Tender Bar; J.R. Moehringer

The Shipping News; Annie Proux

Crow Lake; Mary Lawson




4 thoughts on “Habitual Reading

  1. Oh, goody! I’m always looking for recommendations from a trusted reading advisor. Now to add a few: I just finished the first three of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. (The fourth is due out in September.) It took me a bit to get into the first one (“My Brilliant Friend”), but once I got going, I was hooked. These books follow the lives and friendship of two women over many decades. They are stunning. I followed them up with something a bit lighter: “Nine Inches”, a collection of Tom Perrotta short stories.

    Meanwhile, how fun to be able to go back through your reading journals. Wish I’d been keeping one. (And you’re right: how fun would it be to know what you were reading in eighth grade. The one thing I remember is “The Hills Were Liars,” a dystopic novel that had something to do with the Catholic Church.)

    I will also note that your Aunt Liz was a major Jane Austen fan, who reread Jane every year. I can’t remember whether “Persuasion” or “Sense and Sensibility” was her favorite, but she’d be delighted to know that you were keeping her reading company.

    Liked by 1 person

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