One of my publishers, HarperCollins, is currently celebrating its 200th birthday. I’ve been part of the HC program for about thirty years. To celebrate, they’re asking their authors to write pieces about why they read. Since I have to write a blog post this week anyway, I’m doing another two-fer.
I grew up in Bisbee, Arizona, in the forties and fifties. Bisbee is in the southeastern corner of the state on the far side of the Mule Mountains, and it took a very long time for the allure of television to make it over the Mules and down into our community. Summer evenings were often spent with our father reading poetry to us aloud out of the Treasury of the Familiar. I loved the stories in those poems. Horatius at the Bridge, The Wreck of the Hesperis, The Song of the Shirt, It Was Six Men of Industan, I Had But Fifty Cents. You’ll be glad to know that threadbare volume remains one of the treasured books in my collection of books.
The first book I ever read on my own was called Smokey the Crow. I don’t know how it came to be among my family’s books. It was green with a black crow embossed on the cover, and it was the story of some farm kids who rescued an injured crow. I loved that book. Ironically, a few months after I read it, I was on my way to school when a crow dive bombed me and tried to pull the gold barrettes out of my hair. A man named Mr. Treseiss came running out of his front yard wielding a rake and chased the crow away. I was late to school that day. When I told Mrs. Kelly I was late because I’d been chased by a crow, she told me I was a liar. Oh, wait, that’s another whole story, but isn’t that what reading is all about—stories?
I read because I CAN read! And who made that possible? Of course, our parents who read to us had a lot to do with it, but so did my teachers at Greenway School—Mrs. Kelly, Mrs. Spangler, Mrs. Gilbert, Mrs. Dye, Miss Stammer, Mrs. Watkins, Mr. Norton, Mrs. Hennessey. They taught reading and writing and spelling—all the things I use every day when I do my job of being a writer.
I read because I love to read. When I was a kid, books carried me out into the world on the far side of the Mule Mountains. I never got caught up in the Bobbsey Twins or the Tom Swift books. But Nancy Drew? Yup, and I still love little red roadsters. The Hardy Boys? Absolutely. Cherry Ames? Those, too. For a while, because of Cherry Ames, I thought I was going to be a nurse when I grew up. The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever seeing any mention of actual blood in any of those books.
On summer vacations, books gave me a way to escape the misery of being stuck in the back seat of a moving vehicle with three younger brothers all of whom wanted a seat by a window. I could avoid the mayhem by hiding out in the pages of a Walter Farley Black Stallion book, or Frog: The Horse Who Knew No Master; or any a whole passle of Albert Payson Terhune books which were all about people raising prize winning collies on a wonderfully exotic estate always referred to as “the Place.” And once we finally got to the farm in South Dakota, where we went every other year to visit our relatives, I remember hiding out in my grandparents astoundingly hot upstairs bedroom reading the books of Harold Bell Wright. Shepherd of the Hills anyone?
Eventually I graduated to Zane Grey. His books were often set in my home state of Arizona. They were Westerns with cowboys and horses and ranches and even the occasional bad word. Those problematic words were always designated by a first letter followed by a number of dashes. I was smart enough to figure out what the missing letters should be, and reading those books made me feel like a grownup.
Even now in my seventies, I still read to escape. I enjoy reading other people’s books to dodge the responsibility of writing my own. They take me to other places and other worlds. I’ve learned about Roman History through the works of Lindsay Davis. Ann B. Ross has introduced me to what life is like in the rarefied world of North Carolina. The Martian by Andy Weir didn’t make me want to live on Mars, but it scared the daylights out of me, and I came away from reading the book knowing that days on Mars aren’t days at all; they’re called sols. And speaking of scary? Take a look at a book called I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. That one’s a doozy.
I’m finishing writing a book this week. The next Beaumont book, Proof of Life, has to be in New York on Monday. On Tuesday morning my husband and I head off on a cruise that will take up most of a month. I’ll be traveling with my iPad fully loaded with any number of brand new unread books. I can hardly wait.
Going on vacation AND getting to read? What could be better?