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“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
I read these words, propped against the couch during our family Christmas Eve party. One minute I was looking at colored lights and tinsel and savoring the buttery taste of my mother’s spritz cookies and the next in Middle Earth, blowing smoke rings with Bilbo Baggins.
I read The Hobbit for the first time Christmas Eve, 1967. I know exactly when, because of the inscription my uncle wrote in the book. Uncle Roy gave each of his nieces and nephews a book on Christmas Eve, and we were allowed to open and read them. The inscription read, “This will introduce you to Tolkien’s great work, The Fellowship of the Ring.”
It did introduce me to Tolkien’s other works, and thinking about it now, it was rather a challenging book to give to a 9-year-old. But it opened up an entire world for me, an imaginary world where I could be whoever I wanted to be in the story.
A family affair
I was fortunate in that reading was encouraged by my family. My family valued education, and my parents understood that a curious reader makes a good student.
I got my books anywhere and everywhere, and I was influenced by my mother and Uncle Roy, who loved the Alcotts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and everyone in that circle. Mom and Unk shared their books with me. They took me with them to Fruitlands Museum in Harvard and the Alcott House in Concord, where I delighted my uncle by correcting the docents. (I think the docents felt differently.) They took me on their trips to secondhand book stores and allowed me, basically, to read anything I wanted to read. My mother didn’t like it much when I got into Sylvia Plath, but she never censored my reading. Ever.
I read my way through childhood and adolescence and adulthood. Besides the school and public libraries, my uncle freely loaned me books from his personal library, which was large and eclectic. He was fond of C. S. Lewis and Tolkien and the work of The Inklings, their literary society. He introduced me to The Once and Future King, by T. H. White, which got me started on a King Arthur rampage, leading all the way from Morte d’Arthur to Mary Stewart.
Unk also loved hard-boiled crime fiction (George V. Higgins was his favorite mystery writer), romantic poetry, mythology, and Norse sagas like The Elder Edda. He was thrilled when I took a class in Chaucer in college, and even more thrilled when I told him that I had introduced my professor of children’s literature to Tolkien’s Smith of Wootten Major and On Fairy-Stories.
A bit of fantasy
I especially liked books with a fantastical element to them. Philip Pullman is considered a children’s author, and it sometimes seems to me that the most interesting new ideas are written about in young adult fiction because that audience still has an open mind.
When I first read The Golden Compass, I felt like I had come home, after a long, long wait. Here is a book that combines a female heroine; an alternative Oxford, England; physics; and religion. It’s a dream read for someone who majored in philosophy and who loves metaphysics. There’s magic and daemons, too.
Child of a Rainless Year, another favorite, is the story of a middle-aged art teacher who suddenly loses her adoptive parents and returns to her childhood home in New Mexico to discover that the house she has inherited has a mind of its own. Not only is this book a wonderful read, you will never, ever cross a threshold the same way again.
Then there’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. An alternative history of England set during the Napoleonic Wars, battles are won because of the workings of the English court magician. This book is beautifully written, and I love the author’s view of the kingdom of fairy as a treacherous place, not to be entered lightly.
Reading at DEC
Gaudy Night and Cold Comfort Farm are delightful reads that I was introduced to in my thirties, when I joined a book club with folks from Digital Equipment Corporation. These books were revelations to me: I never realized that Gothic humor could be so funny until I read Cold Comfort Farm, and I had no idea of how witty and brilliant mystery could be until Gaudy Night.
I also owe this group a debt of gratitude for selecting Beloved as one of their choices. Beloved is simply one of the finest novels I have ever read. I started it at 7 o’clock one evening and read through the night until I was done. The anger that burns through Beloved made me expect scorch marks on the pages.
One for kids
There are two books that I adore, that most people I know are not familiar with.
I Go by Sea, I Go by Land is a children’s book by P. L. Travers about two English children who are sent across the Atlantic to New York City to stay with friends of their parents during World War II. It is a coming-of-age novel and a love song to America and England and the ties between the two countries. And I love that P. L. Travers appears in the novel (at least I am assuming it is she) as “Pel,” the parents’ crazy writer friend.
Including The Screwtape Letters on this list made me realize that it’s time for me to read it again. This novel by C.S. Lewis about an uncle coaching his nephew on how to get ahead in the bureaucracy of hell is a classic. Like Cold Comfort Farm, it still makes me laugh when I reread it.
Reading is like love
The final book on this list is Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin. I come back to it, again and again, and it never fails to delight me. I can try to explain why, but I will probably fail.
Happy All the Time is the story is of Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy, third cousins and close friends, and the women they meet, fall in love with, and marry. Simple, right? But this book is about people and love. There’s nothing simple about love, but that doesn’t make us long for it any less.
Reading is like love. It makes us long for more. It opens us up to the dazzling, complex world we live in. And maybe not the world we live in—as a little girl, I spent far more time in Middle Earth and Narnia than I did in Auburn, Massachusetts. And the doorway to those worlds was a book my Uncle Roy gave me in 1967.
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