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Why Read?

Reading for pleasure is becoming a lost art, even though with the advent of self-publishing there are no doubt more books on the market now than ever before. When I consulted my good friend, Joe Johnston, a writer himself, about how to frame my memoir, Another Cheesy Family Newsletter, the first wise tidbit of advice he gave me was to decide who my audience would be. He meant his remark to be funny, but, “Don’t aim it at millennials; millennials don’t read,” made me pause and think. Why should they? They have the world at their fingertips, and they know how to access just about anything at the push of a button (or nowadays, by asking Alexa). They’re prolific researchers. You can rarely have a conversation with a young adult that they will not pick up their phones to further elucidate a juicy morsel of information imparted by a friend or family member. “You say women in the 60s couldn’t own credit cards, Grandma? Let me look that up…click, click…wow, they couldn’t go to an Ivy league school or even serve on a jury. And birth control was illegal in some states …” and so on, and so on. No, they’re NOT ill-informed. They read a lot. But their reading tends to lean toward bits and bytes.

The type of reading I’m talking about is the lounge-around-all-Sunday-afternoon-with-a-book kind of reading. Immersing oneself in a page-turner. I enjoy a good movie or TV series immensely, but nothing transports me to the mountains of Idaho, or a German-occupied village in WWII, or an affluent neighborhood in Ohio, like a good book. I imagine what each character looks like, plant myself in the middle of the setting, empathize with the suffering hero – just swim in that deep pool of words – for hours. Often, a book will send me on a mission to find out more, as I am presently doing, researching Chile’s political upheaval in the 70s while I read Isabel Allende’s Paula. And though I tend to prefer novels, especially historical fiction, and can’t get excited about science fiction or fantasy, I’ve sampled them all. And, of course, the most important book of all for any Christian, the Bible, is a history book, a how-to book, a self-help book, a biography…all the genres in one.

The reading seed was planted in my brain by my mother. I can still remember her reading Little Golden Books to me at night before bedtime. She often repeated to me the story of my eyes welling up with tears while she was reading Bambi, not because he lost his mother, but because “his eyes just look so sad.” As an only child, it was usually my responsibility to entertain myself, so I read – nonstop. Whatever I could get my hands on. I remember, once, on an extended stay at my grandmother’s, I found a school textbook and read Great Expectations three times. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath awakened in this 12-year-old an awareness of the social injustice in this world. I read it over and over. I don’t remember ever actually going to a bookstore and buying a book, but I was a frequent visitor at the library, and my parents were also avid readers, so there were several books to choose from in our house – though I’m not sure The Carpetbaggers was exactly appropriate for a 13-year-old. Of course, as an English major in college, I was required to read reams of classic literature, and I loved it all…except for Moby Dick, just couldn’t plow my way through that one. And as an English teacher, it was my turn to plant the reading and writing seed. As a mother, I continued to read to my children, and they always saw their dad and I with a book in our hands. I was ecstatic when they learned to love reading as well.

When I was recently asked what made me decide to write a book, I answered that I had more than one motive, but one of them was most definitely, “Because I love to read.” Doesn’t every writer? When people tell me that my book made them cry or chuckle, or that they couldn’t put it down, I swell with pride. They are experiencing the emotions that a good book evokes – the profound sadness I felt for the tattered, wounded soldier in The Red Badge of Courage, the stark horror of demonic possession in The Exorcist, the helpless anger at the evil Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the delight in the laugh-out-loud fumbling teenager scenes in Jean Shepherd’s Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. I suffered so with the characters in the Hat Creek Cattle Company from Lonesome Dove when Deets, the noblest of them all, is killed by an Indian spear, hurled at him by a child, and I almost couldn’t read on after the loquacious Gus McCrae passed on. I could go forever about how books have made me rich.

I’ll never stop reading books. If my eyesight goes, I’ll listen to audible books. If I can’t hear…well, I’ll survive, as long as I can experience the printed page. I must have books in my life and even after. When I picture Heaven, I don’t see clouds and pearly gates. I see miles and miles of library shelves, stocked with every book ever written. Maybe then I'll have time to read them all.

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