Friends, Mentors, and Guides

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Child_Reading_(Enfant_lisant)_-_BF51_-_Barnes_Foundation When I think back on my growing-up years, my most cherished memories are of the books that filled my life.  I began to read in kindergarten and after I learned, it was a rare occasion I wasn’t reading a book.  Curled up in a chair, lying flat on my bed, perched on a tree branch, riding in the car, at my desk in school—every location was the perfect place to read a book. I raced through The Black Stallion books, inherited from my father, and spent countless hours poring over the volumes of Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales that had belonged to my mother. Christmas and birthday gifts always included beautiful hardcover books such as The Little Princess, Alice in WonderlandThe Wind in the Willows, and other classics. With my allowance, I bought myself the Nancy Drew mysteries that my library didn’t own and filled in the gaps in my collection of L.M. Montgomery’s Anne books.

Each trip to the library resulted in a new stack of books to savor, the highlight of my week. Books by Beverly Cleary, sequels to Little Women, and The Scarlet Pimpernel were titles I borrowed over the years. Staying home sick in bed meant time to reread my favorite Narnia book. If I had to miss church, my parents would bring home Bible story books from the church library to keep me occupied for the afternoon.

Every time we moved, one of the first things I did was to set up the bookcase that my great-grandfather had built in my new bedroom. Made of dark, heavy wood and held together only by slots and pegs, the bookcase contained all of my treasured volumes and remained the focal point of my room.

However, it wasn’t merely the books that charmed me or the stories they contained. The truths they contained, the characters that became my friends, and the worlds to which they introduced me that were the real treasures.

My imagination grew as I traveled to fabulous places. I went to Wonderland with Alice and met the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Red Queen. Dorothy’s adventures in Oz drew me to a place where monkeys flew, lions talked, and terrifying tornadoes became vehicles to other worlds. I grew to love the English countryside of Mary Lennox and Rat, Mole, and Toad. The American woods and prairies, as described by Laura Ingalls Wilder, became my playground too, in my mind, while I longed to go to Narnia with Lucy and Edmund, Susan and Peter to meet Aslan, Mr. Tumnus, and the Beavers.

Also, the heroines inspired me with their character and strength . When I was feeling put upon by having to do chores around the house and yard, I would imagine myself a princess like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess.  Instead of complaining about shoveling the walk, I would do it cheerfully as I thought Sara would do.  Rather than whine about a dinner I didn’t like, I would remind myself that at least I had good food to eat. When I was embarrassed by a pair of shoes I had to wear one year, I remembered Sara’s clothes being old and shabby.  Seeing how difficult it was for Sara, without parents to love her, I learned to better appreciate my own happy childhood.

After reading Anne of Green Gables in fifth grade, I not only found a heroine to emulate but also identified with her imagination and fanciful ways. I loved to read and put myself in the place of the heroine although I fortunately never sank in a leaky boat. I, too, spent hours wandering through the woods and fields near my home, and named my favorite haunts. Violet Valley, a small depression carpeted with violets each spring, was my favorite place. I would sink down among the flowers and pick handfuls of the purple and white blooms for my mother every year.  When I read the chapter Where the Violets Grow in By the Shores of Silver Lake, I was not only reading the words, but I knew exactly what it was like to sink down into a mass of violets.

Reading opened the world to me. I learned how to be more compassionate to those in need, to understand people from different places and cultures than mine. I was inspired to make jam, bake bread, and keep a house from some books. Other books prodded me to study hard and succeed at school. Still others pushed me to continue with my writing. I learned what qualities make a good friend and wife and mother.  Poetry opened my life to a richness of emotion and put words to things in my heart that I didn’t know could be described in words.

Spending so many hours reading during my childhood and adolescence was not only helpful in my growth academically and intellectually. I grew as a human being as I encountered the experiences and relationships of fictional characters. Books have been my friends, my mentors, and my guides.  The person I am today is due to the books and stories I have absorbed and delighted in throughout my life.

Favorite Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers

Dorothy_L._Sayers

While I read widely and in a variety of genres, my favorite fiction books are invariably British detective stories, and the author I like best of all in that genre is Dorothy L. Sayers. I first discovered the Lord Peter Wimsey novels just after I graduated from university. I don’t remember now just how I found them, but I suspect that I was wandering in the public library after work one evening and picked one up. Or it could be that someone recommended them to me, knowing I enjoyed Agatha Christie. At that point, I had read most of Christie and was looking for a new author.

However it came about, I soon discovered how much I liked Sayers. Her plots were clever but fair. The clues were always there if you looked hard enough for them, but she didn’t make it easy for you. The first several Lord Peter novels are not great character studies. As much as I enjoyed them, Peter seemed a bit too good to be true and Bunter was almost too perfect. The mystery plots are gems though. Where else would you read about advertising agencies or change ringing (ringing of the bells in church towers)?

In each book, there is a depth of knowledge that enhances the reader’s experience. There is something to learn, something to dig into, something to be exposed to for the first time in such a way that your interest is grabbed and you can’t wait to find out more.

For instance, I had never read much about the fens and how they flood. A cricket match was a plot point in one novel, and I’ve been intrigued by the game ever since I first read about bowling and achieving a century. I suspect that Bellona Club is the origination of my interest in World War I and Remembrance Day is now a date on my calendar (Veteran’s Day for us in the U.S.). I learned that Dukes were tried by the House of Lords rather than in a regular court so that they could be tried by a jury of their peers (this right was abolished in 1948). Lord Peter novels first introduced me to first editions, the color primrose, shell shock, and the lot of a generation of unmarried women due to the numerous casualties in the Great War.

My favorite books are those with Harriet Vane. She was introduced in Strong Poison. Shockingly for the time period, she was on trial for the murder of her lover. In the 1930’s, good girls didn’t live with men who weren’t their husbands, and Harriet’s background (daughter of a country doctor) seemed to indicate that she was one of the good girls.

However, she lived in Bloomsbury and had picked up some of the Bohemian ways of that set. For a time she had set up house with an artist, but broke off with him several months before the events in Strong Poison took place. Her ex-lover was murdered, she was accused, and Lord Peter first saw her in court while she was being tried for the crime.

Harriet brings a three-dimensional character to the Wimsey books that makes them good novels as well as great detective puzzles. Her inner dialogues, choices, and interactions with Peter help to elevate the books to a higher level than most other mysteries. Gaudy Night, one of my top five favorite novels of all time, is a masterpiece of learning, character, plot, and description. When I finally had the opportunity to go to Oxford for the first time not many months after reading Gaudy Night, I walked the streets with Harriet beside me.

Busman’s Honeymoon introduced me to poetry and one of my favorite poets—John Donne. I especially enjoyed the quote game Harriet and Peter play with the police inspector. My school French was required to translate a letter written to Peter in that language. There is no translation because Sayers assumed that her readers spoke that language as many educated people did in her day.

If Sayers had just written these detective stories, she would be remembered as an author. However, she also wrote plays, essays, and produced an excellent translation of Dante. In fact, her translations of Purgatorio and Paradiso were the first I encountered and they still have a special place in my heart. Her essays are amazing, and one of my favorites, The Dogma is the Drama, is a first rate defense of the importance of theology to the Christian.

Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s works and about her life helped me to realize that Christians can be intellectuals. I found many more Christian intellecturals afterwards, but her top notch scholarship combined with her strong Christian faith  gave me “permission” to be a thinking Christian.

I had been surrounded by Christians all my life but it was mostly those who weren’t Christians who read the Great Books and wrote strong essays and became scholars. Sayers introduced me to the grand tradition of the Christian scholar and the fact that women can be scholars, too.

Her study of medieval Italian during the air raids of World War II sent me back to my Latin and gave me the desire to read medieval literature. Her theological essays gave me the impetus to go deeper in my own theological studies. And, of course, her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, was one of the main starting points to the eighteen years of homeschooling I did with my children. I wanted that kind of education for them. I wanted them to be as learned, as tough-minded, and as logical in their thinking as she was.

I became a scholar, a thinker, a true reader, a lover of poetry, and a writer as a result of my first picking up a mystery novel. That’s an amazing influence and the reason I place Sayers in the top five of all time best mystery novelists. She certainly earned her title as one of the Queens of Crime. I highly recommend her novels for anyone who likes detective fiction or just wants a good book to read. Who knows? You may be inspired to go off on an intellectual journey of your own as a result.

My Reading Life

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. —C. S. Lewis

Bookroom corner

For anyone who has read my blog for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve discovered that I love to read. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love books or have time for books in my life. As a child, the bookcase in my room was a never-ending source of delight. I read and reread favorite books. Every year a friend of my grandmother’s gave my brother and me books for Christmas. The Velveteen Rabbit, the Little House books, The Little Princess, and a set of six matching hardbacks, including titles such as Mary Poppins and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were some of the titles I remember receiving from her.

My mother took us to the library regularly and once I was big enough and strong enough to bike there myself, I would go on my own. We lived in a small town for several years and the library was only a few miles away. By the time I was in junior high, I could go by myself.

I still remember that library. It was a little house on the town square, filled with books. I first read the Anne of Green Gables books and The Scarlet Pimpernel there. It’s funny that I remember no librarians, just stacks full of books to browse and borrow.

When I was in high school, we moved to a different state and I had a job at our town’s public library. That meant that I could bring books home every day after work. I didn’t have to wait for the once a week trip. It was in high school that I discovered Agatha Christie books, selling for 10 cents a piece at our library book sale. I spent many happy hours reading when my schoolwork was done and on weekends. I remember taking a book out with me to the woods, sitting in a chair with an apple and a book on a rainy Saturday, curled up on my bed one weekend with Gone with the Wind and astonishing my mother when I finished it by Sunday evening.

In the library where I worked, the fiction collection started on the left-hand wall, continued around the back wall, and finished on the right-hand wall. I started the A’s with Jane Austen and spent the last two years in high school working through classics like Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Les Miserables and many others. I also fell in love with the historical fiction books by Thomas Costain, Anya Seton, and Leon Uris.

Despite my studies in college, I still found time for pleasure reading. I mostly had to rely on the books that I had brought from home until my last year in college. The summer before my senior year, I moved to a house within walking distance of the university with a bunch of other girls.

Just around the corner, there was a tiny public library extension and any time I wasn’t at work that summer, I was reading. Our house didn’t have air conditioning and the nights could be unbearably warm so a book to read until 2 a.m. was a help in making myself tired enough to sleep in the heat.

I worked at my university after graduation. On weekends, I poked around used bookstores and made a trip to the main downtown library for something new to read. My collection of books was growing. I started branching out from historical fiction and mysteries into poetry, plays, and literary fiction. I first found Miss Manners and learned etiquette while giggling over her snarky attitude. I read biographies. It was at this time that I first discovered Anne Morrow Lindberg’s books of journals and letters that made such an impact on my life. I was single and not a party girl. I would go to work and afterwards my books would keep me company in the evenings.

I did finally get married, but I didn’t stop reading. My husband was in school so we spent evenings reading—me with my beloved classics and mysteries and he with his school books. This worked out well since it would have been hard if my new husband hadn’t understood my love for books.

After our children came, I was busy most of the day caring for them and the house but I still carved out time for books. With just one baby, I could find time to read while nursing, while he napped, before bed. However, when the second little guy came along, it was much harder. I was on the go all day. Every time I wasn’t doing something, I was exhausted and only wanted to sleep.

I was feeling starved, intellectually and spiritually, without time spent reading, reflecting, and writing. One day, I realized that after the baby’s early morning feed, he went back to sleep and I had an hour before my oldest woke up. Rather than go back to bed, as I had been doing, I used that time to read my Bible, to journal, to read uplifting books. I rediscovered my core being again as God’s Word nourished my spirit and mind, as I read good fiction and edifying nonfiction, as I reflected on new ideas, and wrote about what I was thinking and how I was growing.

When we started homeschooling our children, I introduced reading as a pastime to my children. I had read aloud to them for years, but now we spent long hours every day with books—reading, discussing, narrating. The boys would look forward to library day when we would go for library programs, gather a new stack of books, and spend the evening together, everyone with the book of their choice.

People asked me how I had time to read while homeschooling three children and running the house. My response was that I needed to read in order to do those things. Reading and studying was key to my ability to grow in my faith, teach my children what they needed to know, and to keep my sanity. Studies detailed how many women were on anti-depressants and other drugs in order to cope with the stresses of modern life. I found that if I kept learning and reading and regularly interacting with good ideas, those pastimes helped me with stress. I found strength in the nourishment I was receiving intellectually, emotionally, and, most importantly, spiritually.

These days I still read whenever I can find a few moments. Now that my children have grown up and starting new lives in working and higher education, I work at our local library so I still have plenty of books at my fingertips. Newly published books make their way to my nightstand, piles of books that I’m reading and pondering teeter around my “book room”, and my bookshelves still overflow.

What started as a common pastime as a child has turned into a way of life. I still spend many evenings and weekends with a book and a pot of tea. I do not regret the many hours spent in other people’s lives. I lived a thousand lives, traveled the world, and learned about life from other people’s experiences. Reading has enriched my life beyond all imagining. The reading life is the only life for me.

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

I just finished reading about Rule #3 in Deep Work by Cal Newport. Rule #3 is Quit Social Media. I won’t go into all of the reasons he mentions or some of his suggestions as to how. You can get a good idea from his TED talk  (or read his explanation in the book).

Instead, I want to focus on the last section of the chapter because I found it very motivating. His subheading is Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself and in this section, he refers often to Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

We tend to think that distracted free time and wasting time after work is a recent phenomenon. Apparently it was also a problem in the early 20th century when Bennett wrote his book. I read Bennett’s book about ten years ago and found it very helpful and practical. Newport refers to it often and, in particular, focuses on two main points that Bennett made.

The first is Put more thought into your leisure time. Newport says,

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, a la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company. p. 213

He goes on to say that he spends his evenings reading, with his computer and phone tucked away.

The second point he pulls out from Bennett reminded me of Charlotte Mason, who suggested switching subjects often for children since changing to a fresh type of work helps our minds not become too fatigued. Bennett wrote,

One of the chief things which my typical man [or woman] has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want to change—not rest, except in sleep.

Newport goes on to confirm this,

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing. p. 214

This section resonated with me. There are so many times that I am annoyed with myself for wasting time over too much time surfing the Web, but I am rarely dissatisfied with time spent reading a good book or writing or knitting or walking around the block. I am finding that I must actually plan for those things or it’s all too easy to waste time doing nothing. If I write down the things I want to accomplish, work or recreation, on my daily “to do” list, I am much more likely to do them than if I just float through my day. That may not be true for you, but try planning your free time this week. Or pick up Arnold Bennett’s book and see if he inspires you to give some structure to your recreation. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

An overview of my reading life in 2014

 

One of the things I like most about Goodreads is that I am so much better about keeping track of what I’ve read.  In the past I would jot down a book title and perhaps the author in a notebook but, more often than not, I would forget to write it down, and as a result I never really had a good record of my reading habits.  Regularly adding to Goodreads has changed all that.  Now I know how many books I read and can review my progress from month to month.  Overall 2014 was a good reading year although I can see areas of weakness that I’d like to address in the future.

In 2014 I read 109 books, 10 of which were audiobooks.  I am in the car for several hours a week and listening to audiobooks helps me to redeem that time.  Out of the 109, only ten were non-fiction.  That is the lowest percentage of non-fiction books (only 9% non-fiction!) that I can remember reading for many, many years, and I would like to see that be a much higher percentage.  I started several non-fiction books but didn’t finish them.  A better balance of book types is something to consider as I think about my 2015 reading goals.

I had hoped to read more modern books this year and I did:  13 of the books were published in 2014 and 14 were published in 2013 so 25% of my reading was books published recently.  I want to do the same again this year.

I read part or all of several series, my first graphic novel, a handful of classics, a bunch of World War I fiction (2014 was the centennial of the start of the War to End All Wars), and, as always, lots and lots of mysteries.  Now to go think about what goals I’d like to set for my reading in 2015.