I love to read. And while I might not absolutely agree with the Anglo-American man of letters, Logan Pearsall Smith who said, “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading,” I come awfully close to subscribing to his sentiment. In fact, back in the day— far back in the day—I needlepointed that quotation onto a piece of canvas that I’ve never gotten around to framing and turning into a pillow. Too busy reading, I suppose.
Reading has always brought me pure joy. I read to encounter new worlds and new ways of looking at our own world. I read to enlarge my horizons, to gain knowledge of others and myself, and to experience beauty and sadness. I read to find myself and lose myself. I read for company and for escape. I read to meet other people and enter their lives—for me, a way of vanquishing the “otherness” we all experience.
Growing up in a not very happy lower-middle-class family in Detroit, I spent my childhood and most of my adolescence at my local public library—the Parkman branch of the Detroit Public Library. The librarians there found me books that revealed worlds beyond the world I experienced every day. Although I have very few memories of specific events of my childhood, I have vivid memories of books I read and loved during those years. Sometimes I have forgotten the author or the title, or even what happened in the course of the book; but I do remember how transported I was when I read them.
I’m talking about books like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron; Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse; Robert Heinlein’s Space Cadet, The Star Beast, and Red Planet; Hitty: Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field; Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink; The Sea Is Blue by Marie Lawson; David Severn’s Dream Gold; Betty Cavanna’s teen romances, like Going on Sixteen and The Boy Next Door; Green Eyes by Jean Nielsen; The Kid from Tomkinsville by John R. Tunis, among so many, many others that changed my life. It’s not too much of an exaggeration—if it’s one at all—to say that reading saved my life.
When I was ten years old, I knew I wanted to become a children’s librarian, just like Miss Long and Miss Whitehead, the main influences on my reading life. I wanted to give other children the gift these two dedicated women gave to me: the gift of books and reading.
Now, whenever I begin reading a book I’ve never read before, I realize that I am embarking on an a new, uncharted journey, with an unmarked destination. I never know where a particular book will take me, toward what other books I’ll be led. How could I have predicted that reading Richard Bausch’s Hello to the Cannibals would send me on a reading jag about Victorian lady travelers? Or that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children would lead me to Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre and hundreds of other fiction and nonfiction works about India.
Each time I start a new book (and any book I haven’t read before, no matter the year it was published), I realize that there’s a very real chance that this may be a book that I will fall in love with. Some books let me know from the very first sentence that I am in great hands, that this reading experience will be transporting and transformative. How better to explain my reaction to the first few pages of Ward Just’s A Dangerous Friend, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, The Paperboy by Pete Dexter, and The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, to name just a few.
One of my strongest-held beliefs is that no one should ever finish a book that he or she isn’t enjoying, no matter how popular or well reviewed the book is (or how many awards it has won). Trust me on this, you’re not going to get any points in heaven by slogging through a book you don’t like. Any book you aren’t enjoying is not the right book for you at that time. Of course, that’s not to say that in two weeks or two months or two years or twenty years you might not go back to it and discover that you love it and can’t understand why you couldn’t stand it in the first place. Our mood has much to do with our reading tastes. I always leave open the possibility of going back and retrying books that I didn’t like the first time. I couldn’t get into Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers, John Crowley’s Little, Big, George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, and Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal the first time I tried them: now they’re among my favorite books.
I hope that you’ll find many books here that you’ll read and enjoy, even come to treasure as a high point in your reading life. I do know for sure that some of the books I’m recommending here you won’t enjoy. And that’s fine: that’s what reading is all about.
Finally, to paraphrase Robert Frost (from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”), my love and my work are one—and I feel extremely lucky to be able to say that.