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A Literary Journey

by Dianne Kochenburg

I had a hard time learning how to read. I remember my friends helping me figure out the words to one of those Dick and Jane books as we walked home from school. But all of a sudden, in second grade about half way through the school year, I could read. I went from the struggling-bird reading group to the blue birds, a huge leap right into the top reading group, memorable for me. From then on I’ve gone through life with a book in hand.

My mom loved libraries and we walked to the library every few weeks, carrying home loads of books. We moved a lot, which she said was a good thing because she read quickly and soon had exhausted everything of interest to her in the local branch. I never went to a bookstore when I was young, had no idea used bookstores even existed. Maybe they didn’t.

Mom didn’t look over my shoulder to monitor what I was reading. She rarely even suggested books for me. She just said, don’t lose your library books, don’t write in them and use a bookmark. Lost and damaged library books cause problems, and fines. Don’t do that.

Nobody suggested books to read other than teachers’ required reading. Maybe there were lists at the library, but I ignored them. I didn’t like to listen to other people read books to me. I wanted to go on that journey by myself. I would just stand in the library fiction section mesmerized by the titles. I rarely looked inside a book until I got home with it and found a quiet place to curl up. At first I stayed close to the kid lit section, but then one day I just up and wandered over to adult lit. Maybe I was 11 or 12. From then on, no more Nancy Drew and Laura Ingles Wilder. I was looking for bigger thrills.

At school we were studying Oregon history, the Oregon Trail, Lewis and Clark, all so interesting. I found Zane Gray and read all of his books. It was the time of cowboys and Indians in films and on TV so I was right at home on the range.

It was summer and I was 13 when I found Mike Hammer’s Mickey Spillane. Somehow I got hold of Pocket Book editions of the series for ten cents apiece, and I read all of them. They were pretty racy for a young teenager but mom didn’t care. In the afternoon I’d spread out a blanket under our big apricot tree and read. If the apricots were ripe, I’d pick a pile of them for a snack. These were my first thrillers and I couldn’t believe how much fun it was to read them. I was also going to the movies all the time, so I lived in a fantasy world of fiction throughout my teenage years. I wouldn’t find Ian Fleming until I was in my 20s but I read all of the Bond series too. Those two authors were probably the cause of my love of mysteries and spy novels.

I took French classes in high school. One of the first things the teacher asked was if anybody knew what the term nom de plume stood for. Of course I did.

I read Les Miserables, not because it was required, but because it was there in the library. A real French novel, much more interesting than Tale of Two Cities, which was required reading. Over the years I’ve enjoyed lots of French literature. I wanted to go to France but didn’t actually get there until I was in my 60s. So books like Madam Bovary, Collette, and Candide stood in for the real experience. Proust! Nowadays I’m hooked on Alan Furst, who sets many of his WWII spy-romance-of-war novels in Paris.

I discovered War and Peace as a teenager. I plowed through it somehow, loved the war scenes. As a result I decided to read more Russian novels. They all seemed so depressing, I don’t know why I liked them. Crime and Punishment was a great read, couldn’t put it down. Boris Pasternak’s novel about Lara was such a treat. It reminded me of Gone with the Wind, great romance novels set in war time. If you take away the romance, war novels are so grim, but I read them too. All Quiet on the Western Front shocked me profoundly. It seemed like we were overrun with war novels in the mid 20th century. Good writing, one after another, we relived the wars and learned about the holocaust.

Before I went to college I loved all of those page turner novels about America. I don’t remember the writers. Also Michner, especially Hawaii! I just recently re-read it and loved it all over again. After a while, the books became formulaic, but by then I was in college. I started school in my 30s, as a hobby. Then I got serious about it and blitzed through classes as a full time student, both undergrad and grad school. My school adventure began when our kids started school and finished when they were in high school. After my amazing student experience, I stayed in the class room, on the other side of the desk.

College reading is an adventure in itself. Once I settled on a major, sociology, reading became more specific, and difficult. I struggled at times, had to get up early in the morning, like around 4 am, and sit in a cold room with the coffee pot, to stay awake, while puzzling over Marx and Weber. Also many other philosophers and fire brands. It was a dizzying experience. I only read fiction when it was required for a class. I remember being a TA for a sociologist who used fiction to explain feminism. I had to shepherd freshmen students through Rebecca and Pride and Prejudice. I would often use novels in my own classes, thanks to that professor’s great idea. Required reading as revenge!

When I started teaching, I joined a book club. I just finished reading a book called Ladies of the Club and I decided I wanted that experience. So my reading became more structured and themed. I chaffed at it often, and was sometimes quite resentful about the books I was more or less required to read. There were some memorable moments but mostly I was not a devoted club member. I loved the ladies, but didn’t like their book choices, so eventually I left the club, after 25 years or so.

I think that after a certain age, it’s more difficult to read the classics. The concentration just isn’t there. And the snob appeal: being able to say, oh I read that, just wasn’t important any longer. I never bought into the idea that reading is a competitive sport. But I do get the feeling that some readers are measuring my well-readedness against theirs. When that happens, I’m more prone to talk about Stephen King than I am about Plato’s Republic. Always keep the critics off guard.

I’m lucky to have an independent streak that allows me to read willy-nilly, sampling all kinds of books with nobody to filter the experience. I rarely read themes, but often I choose an author and read everything they have written. Nowadays when I pick up a classic that I intended to read years earlier, I have a difficult time even cracking it open. I’m resigned to the fact that I’m into my “pleasure” reading days, and probably will never again open another dense volume for any reason. I’m half way through Moby Dick, so I’ll make that exception.

But the reading adventure continues. I collect books, unfortunately. My house is over-run with them and I’m at the “downsizing” point in my life, so soon I will have to part with hundreds of old friends. I’m not looking forward to that chore, but after reading the Japanese lady’s book about tidying up, I’m okay with getting rid of a few things. I love bookstores and books, but I’m also a fan of Amazon, and the Kindle. I love to browse the thrift shops for books, but unless they are valuable physically, I turn them loose right after I finish them off.

I still scan the best seller lists often and drool over the latest titles piled up on the shelves of my local Barnes & Noble. Yes, lucky me, I’m close to a huge bookstore that smells like books and good coffee. It has a Starbucks right in the middle of it. I can gather up a big pile of books and spend a pleasant afternoon doing what I love best. Reading! The journey continues.

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