Thursday, September 27, 2012

Read: A post for the bibliophiles

Tonight I am hosting an inaugural meeting of a new book club. It's a first for many reasons; I've never joined a club of any type (outside of a gym setting), I've never willingly organized an activity with so many people involved, and finally, I have never volunteered to be the first to host anything. If you know me personally, you know that social gatherings are not my forte but I must admit that I'm really looking forward to this one for a plethora of reasons. I believe there is one reason above all others which makes this so exciting for me; my love of books. I started this post with the intention of writing about the club but it got me thinking about my reading life in general. I'll get back to the club later...

Warning: If your not a book worm you can tune out now or this will be a very boring read from here on out.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. Books like Prince and the Pauper, Frankenstein and Christmas Carol are practically committed to memory thanks to the countless number of times they were read to me out loud by my Dad at bedtime. Eventually I able to reading these stories back to him which had some interesting unintended results; I was the annoying kid in grade school who was constantly raising her hand to be selected for a turn to read out loud. You remember that girl in your class, don't you? Such a keener, I was. Books were my reward for good behaviour or good grades. I can remember submitting a essay in grade two (extra curricular, no less) for a writing competition with the potential to win a prize, which was a book of my teachers choosing. I still have that prize: a dog-eared 26 year old copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which sits on my bookshelf and still makes me smile every time I see it. I would practically explode with excitement when my teacher would distribute scholastic order forms in class. Does anyone else remember doing this in elementary school? Through this form we could order educational books directly from the publisher; my parents never said no as long as I was selecting books instead of toys. When the huge box would eventually show up on my teachers desk, I could focus on nothing else until she gave out the orders at the very end of the day. Ugh, the anticipation!! But even more dear to me was a near monthly visit to Coles bookstore with my father. I was allowed to select a single book of my choice. At first it was Roald Dahl books but eventually my tastes turned to Sweet Valley Twins and later, Christopher Pike (the R.L. Stine of my generation). I can remember clearly the grey cross-body army bag that I carried, filled with 30 novella issues of Sweet Valley Twins. I oozed pride when I carried those books. I'm painting a pretty nerdy picture, am I not?

For most of my teenage years, I read on my own and didn't really share with others that I had kept up the habit. My friends weren't the reading type, they were still under the misguided belief that reading books were for school and that's it. At first I read mostly horror and mystery books, such as Stephen King, V. C. Andrews (yes, yes, total smut!!). But then I started to visit the library and discovered a wealth of choice at my fingertips. Throughout high school (unbeknownst to my friends), my dad would drive me to the library and wait patiently as I selected the maximum number of books I could take out at once. When we left I would often beg a few dollars from him to buy any interesting second hand books that were on sale in the corridor. As a result, I will always have a fond spot in my heart for Fraiser Hickson library. I was also lucky to have an amazing English teacher in high school that encouraged me to broaden my scope; through him I discovered classics like Lord of the Flies, Macbeth, Caesar, Merchant of Venice, Death of  a Salesman, Button, Button, etc. It was wonderful to have a teacher that was so passionate about the material, even though the curriculum obviously covered the same books year after year. (Thank you Mr. Langlois)

Into my late teens I started to date a boy who also enjoyed books. I discovered that he and his entourage of friends were unabashedly addicted to reading, specifically Anne Rice novels. We were goth-lite by today's standards, all of the music and books with none of the fancy clothes, shoes and piercings. It was fun to discuss books someone other than a parent or teacher. We lined up like star-crazed fans to have Anne Rice sign our hard cover copies of Interview with the Vampire. Such fun! My taste in authors (Terri Brooks, Neil Gaiman) reflected other hobbies of the moment, namely comic books, role playing games, vampires, martial arts and horror movies.

During my post high school studies,  I inadvertently discovered one of my favourite authors. Thanks to a gap in my University schedule I took a Canadian Fiction course; my one and only literature course during my undergraduate studies. I was none too interested and quite unreceptive; a first for me in respect to books. The material seemed inaccessible, full of literary devices and allegorical meaning that I could not decipher. Also, the teacher made some harsh critiques of my writing skills which had a lasting impact on my ego. One selection stood out, Margret Atwood's The Robber Bride, resulting in a multi-year devotion to her entire back catalog. Others elicited a more luke warm reaction (Famous Last Words by Timothy Findley and Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient). I found the remaining books (Marian Engel's The Bear, Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King) to be almost intolerable and yet I still remember them to this day, which is quite telling. I learned that you may hate a book but it may still have an impact on you.

In my early twenties I met a new friend who had a much richer and varied reading history than I did. It made me curious about the classics that I had avoid up until that point; she made them sound so interesting and witty that I had try them for myself. I sunk my teeth into Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre. Exposure to these books made me realize that I wanted to introduce more variety into my reading habits. By sheer luck (and a twenty dollar bill burning a hole in my pocket) I happened upon Fight Club in an airport store which opened up a whole new genre for me; authors with an obvious leaning towards the dystopic and amoral: Iain Banks, Brett Easton Ellis, Chuck Palahniuk, Dalton Trumbo, Daniel Keyes.

Also in my early twenties, I bonded with my next long term boyfriend (and now ex-husband) over a common interest in literature. I shared my favourites and he introduced me to the likes of Nick Hornsby, Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash ), Douglas Coupland, David Rakoff  and Elmore Leonard. I discovered that I was not much of a crime fiction fan, but it did lead me to discover an all consuming addition to Patricia Highsmith novels (The Talented Mr. Ripley). During this time frame I read novels that I truly believe had an affect on the way I see the world. These books had a profound effect on my psyche... they were that powerful. Authors like Charles Baxter, Melissa Banks, Jonathan Franzen, and Jeffrey Eugenides had a visceral effect on how I saw social interactions in families, friendships and romance. These are the books that I know I will go back to again and again over the years.

Which leads me to my current day reading habits. A few years back I started reading "Chick Lit". Despite the frequent knocks against the genre for being too fluffy, it is this very quality that I enjoy. In the right quantity, it's a guilty pleasure that can fill a hole when you are looking for something a little lighter. The same goes for best sellers, a la Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson. I wouldn't want to solely read best sellers but they can be enjoyable; I think of them as the literary equivalent of an action film or summer blockbuster. I'm willing to give most fiction a try; I have a definite leaning towards fiction/literature. I have forayed into non-fiction territory every now and then, but with the very special exception of 'The Happiness Project' by Gretchen Rubin, I simply don't find non-fiction as fulfilling as fiction. When I read a book... a really good book, I let it take hold of me. Its not something I do consciously, but I find myself dreaming, day-dreaming and even dwelling on the story long after I've finished reading it. It's something that is all mine, whenever I want to disengage from the real world. I have my rules though; I cannot abandon a book without giving it a fair chance and if I read a few schlocky books in a row (i.e. Chick Lit) I must intersperse my selection with a more challenging book for variety's sake.

My love of books has also expanded to cookbooks, of which I have many. To me, cookbooks are a thing of beauty, something to enjoy not just for the obvious written content but also for their aesthetic. I can convince myself to buy most books in eformat nowadays, but I will never do this with cookbooks as they deserve the majesty of beautiful glossy pages filled with photos. My boyfriend and I can spend countless hours sitting together, scanning our cookbooks and planning for our next great meal together, and this definitely gives these books more meaning.

I am a romantic when it comes to books, verbose with affection and praise. They remind me of close bonds with people that matter to me. They also remind me of cherished time alone with a warm drink and a big blanket.While reading through this post I am reminded of how much I have to thank my father for encouraging me to read from a very young age. He definitely embedded this appreciation for reading and I am eternally grateful. My parents gave me every opportunity to have reading material at my disposal and I realize I was spoiled to have this privilege that other children may not have had.

So..yeah..I'm kinda excited to be part of a club that's based on a shared interest in books. I'm guessing it may end up being more of a social club than a literary review, but that's okay too. It all comes back to the idea that books can bond people together; even if the notion of a book club is just the excuse to gather people with similar interests in the same room. It seems to have worked, ten women who don't really know each other have confirmed their attendance; maybe some new friendships will evolve from the experience. Or who knows, maybe someone will introduce me to the next mind-blowingly awesome book that changes my world view? Either that or we drink wine and eat

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