In my fourth year of high school, one of my teachers noticed I was reading assigned material faster and at a somewhat more advanced level than my peers. She’d observed that I’d blasted right through The Secret Garden, and I said it was because it was a good book, and really, the language wasn’t as difficult as Lord of the Rings, which I’d read when I was twelve. And when asked about Catcher in the Rye, I said (as politely as I could) that I didn’t care very much for it because I couldn’t stand Holden Caulfield’s constant whining. Of course, I didn’t say that I didn’t finish the book, and thankfully we were never given an exam on it. It’s a good thing she didn’t ask about Pride and Prejudice, because at the time I couldn’t even get past the first three chapters: I was that annoyed with the narration.
Later on, my teacher told me that she knew I had a very well-developed reading habit, simply from the way I was able to formulate more than just a nod or a shake of the head when asked about the novels we were reading for class. I didn’t have the same vocabulary back then as I do now, in the sense that I could describe narration and characterization in their more technical usage, but I was at least able to say why I did or didn’t like a book.
Then she asked the inevitable question: how? How’d I wind up with a reading habit that allowed me to tear through The Secret Garden within a weekend of it being assigned? How’d I become the type of reader who, at twelve, was reading Tolkien and Conan Doyle because I was getting tired of Nancy Drew and was looking for something a bit more mentally strenuous than Sweet Valley?
Then, as now, I only have one answer: my mom.
My mother is a reader: a very voracious one. Her tastes run more towards thrillers and, lately, zombie apocalypse material, but she has never been shy about her joy and celebration of the reading habit – matter of fact, she has far more books in her Kindle e-reader than I have in mine, though that’s mostly because she orders up way more books than I do at any given time. It was her reading habit that she was determined to cultivate in myself and my sister as we were growing up. Some of my earliest memories involve me climbing up a shelf to pick out a book so my mother could read it to me, and then jumping from the shelf onto the bed, book in hand.
My mother didn’t really approve of TV as a means of entertaining her children, so she relied on toys and books to keep us amused. My sister took more to the toys (dolls creep me out), whereas I could be relied upon to go straight for the bookshelf, even when we were visiting other people’s houses. Most people thought it was cute, but my mother, I think, took it as a sign – especially when she saw me making a beeline for the Tintin comics at a local book-borrowing shop that’s long since disappeared from the face of the earth. By the time I was in grade school she was encouraging me to read beyond my grade level: she got the lavishly-illustrated Dorling-Kindersley Eyewitness books about ancient civilizations and various sciences as enticement, until I finally asked for books on anatomy and astronomy, in order to find out what those were. She bought books on those too, even though the books were pretty advanced for someone my age. I’ll admit that I didn’t understand everything I was reading about, but they were well-illustrated so I didn’t particularly mind that some of the ideas were way over my head.
And then, when I was in second grade, I came down with dengue for the first time. It was the first time I was confined to a hospital, and was away from school for a week. My mother, still not a big believer in TV as entertainment for young children, instead brought books from home, both for herself and for me. As a treat, she bought a new book on ancient history (this had since become one of my favorite subjects – thanks Hergé/Georges Remi), but one which included a few chapters on mythology. This sparked a deep and abiding love for mythology of all kinds, but Greek mythology was right on top of the list. Naturally I began asking for books on the subject, and my mother was only too happy to oblige by giving me a lavishly illustrated copy of The Odyssey for my ninth birthday. It was marked “For Twelve Years Old and Up,” but my mother was happy to hand it to nine-year-old me.
At that point, my mother took off the reins, as it were, when it came to my reading – mostly because I didn’t need any more nudging to be made to read. She’d planted the seeds that would become a lifelong habit, and she was letting me grow into it in my own way. Initially she steered me away from romance novels, but she never said I couldn’t read them. “When you’re older,” she always said when I asked if I could read a romance novel when I was ten. By that age I was looking for something other than Nancy Drew and Goosebumps and Sweet Valley, and was asking my mom for “adult books:” essentially, books without pictures, like the ones she read. So she suggested I read Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. Her logic? It was about dinosaurs, and I loved dinosaurs, so it was a good place to start as an “adult book” for me to read.
And with that, I discovered the joys of science fiction. At the time I didn’t know what it was I was reading, exactly, didn’t have the vocabulary to describe the genres I was reading and the kinds of narration I liked or even the types of characters I enjoyed. I just knew that I liked books like this – a need my mother was all too happy to share with me. So even as she was letting eleven-year-old me read Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child with their novel Relic and the sequel Reliquary (which are way too violent for an eleven-year-old, but my mother didn’t really seem to think this was a problem), I was nosing around Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the entire Sherlock Holmes canon via my school’s library. The day I discovered The Hound of the Baskervilles was a revelation, to say the least.
And my mother talked to me about these things. She didn’t simply let me stew on a book for very long after I’d finished reading; she always asked me if I liked what I read, and why. If I liked what I’d read, she encouraged me to go and find more books like it; if I didn’t, she said I didn’t have to read the author or the book ever again if I didn’t want to. She knew, as only a truly voracious reader can know, that there will always, always be something out there for any reader of any stripe to enjoy. Sometimes there are hits and misses along the way, but that’s all right; no one said all books were meant for the reader, after all. Reading was never meant to be punishment; it was meant to be pleasant and fun, and she’d never let me see that it could be anything but pleasant and fun.
It’s that lesson, that reading is a pleasure, not a pain, that has stayed with me all this time. It helped me get through school: when I was being bullied in sixth grade it was easy to hide in the library, where I discovered Lord of the Rings and thus began my love affair with the fantasy genre. It helped me in making career decisions: I decided I wanted to be a writer, which led me to deciding I wanted to be a teacher, as well. It helped me make friends: I wouldn’t have all the friends I have today if it weren’t for this shared love of books. There are a lot of other factors leading up to me being, well, me, but for good, and maybe for ill, to a certain degree, this reading habit, instilled and nurtured by my mother, has shaped me into who I am today, and is still shaping me to this day. After all, I wouldn’t have had the courage to start a book review blog, if it hadn’t been for those long-ago evenings when I’d return a book to my mother, and she’d ask, “How’d you like it?”
Today is Mother’s Day, and while my own mother thinks it’s one of the most commercialized “holidays” ever and so doesn’t quite believe in it, I think it’s only right that, on this day, I share the story of how I became who I am today. It’s because of her, after all, that I do what I do, because she taught me to.