The Book I Want to Read Part I

  author photoAmy Hale Auker writes and rides on a ranch in Arizona.  She is the author of Rightful Place, 2012 WILLA winner for creative non-fiction. Her first novel, Winter of Beauty, was released by Pen-L Publishing in October.  You can read a current essay of Amy’s in the January 2014 issue of Cowboys&Indians magazine, on newsstands now.

by Amy Hale Auker

My current Amazon order looks something like this:  the new Ann Patchett memoir about her writing life, The Goldfinch, Paul Harding’s Tinkers, a novel by Lionel Shriver (she’s a woman!), an advance order for Anthony Doerr’s new book, and Howard Zinn’s history of the United States.

My father threw out the television when I was in the fourth grade, but my reading life began long before that.  In fact, I do not remember a time when I could not read and I stared with dismay as Jill and Ted single-syllabled their way through my kindergarten class taught by a recent college graduate.  My father made peace by promising her I would sit still through the lessons if I could read anything I chose.  Then he drove to the nearest big city bookstore, returning to our tiny country parsonage with a bag of books: Charlotte’s Web, the whole Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Five Little Peppers and How they Grew, Anne of Green Gables and many more.  I sat still during class—and lunch and recess and free play and art and any time someone would leave me alone, my brain firmly wrapped in a book.

As writers, we know our writing life is defined by our reading life.  But what defines our reading life?  For the most part, our reading life is informed by libraries.  And libraries are influenced by region and the reading demographic in that area.  Our personal shelves are often defined by season or inner journey with the fluff being donated to the Friends of the Library fundraiser each year.  The shifts in my reading life haven’t always been in a straight upward trajectory, but rather, wind around in loops.  Inspiration to stretch, to read the “hard” books, has often come from surprising places.

I read “The Glass Menagerie” because it was in one of my father’s high school literary anthologies, the same reason I read Poe.  I read The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes twice during junior high when I was tired of Cherry Ames, Grace Livingston Hill, Nancy Drew, books about girls and horses, and Janette Oke.  I discovered Irving Stone when my mother caught me sneaking smutty romance novels, and once again my father made peace. He gave me The President’s Lady which was shelved next to The Agony and the Ecstasy, The Origin, and Lust for Life.  Imagine what would have happened if he had steered me toward John Irving!  I read Heart of Darkness because I was in Academic Decathlon my junior year in high school.

When my life became formulaic and prosaic, so did my reading life.  Too poor to buy books, I was dependent on small town libraries and country librarians.  But still, I devoured the written word.  While pregnant, I read every book on gestation and the birthing process. While nursing, I read about lactation and found out surprising things about humans in general.  When I began to homeschool my children, my reading life took many growth spurts, and I discovered the wonderful world of fantastical literature.  Arthur Ransome, J.K. Rowlings, Brian Jacques, and Jean Craighead George, to name only a tiny few, inspired me.  Of course, also during those years, I embraced simple, sweet, straightforward stories that could hold my brain still long enough for me to drift off into much-needed sleep.

The inspiration to read “hard” books came again the summer my son was fourteen.  He read “The Red Pony” that spring for part of his literature course.  In June we went to the big city library and he showed up at the circulation desk with a huge pile of books.  When I wearily asked him what was going on, he explained to me that he was going to “read every book that man wrote.”  And he did. I hope Steinbeck heard him from the grave. Because of that moment and a series of separate events, I began to, once again, read the hard books.

The last several years for me have been defined by both the reading and the writing.  My exposure to great writing now stands firmly on a foundation of years spent seeking out writers who get the job done, stands firmly on a foundation of my love for language and the poetic use of language.

My journey as a woman has been marked by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Leaning into the Wind, Ride the White Horse Home, the writings of Jean Shinoda Bolen and Maya Angelou, and the weeks I spent reading, The Mists of Avalon—twice.  The evolution of my faith has been marked by the discovery that there are more books of wisdom than the one I was taught from as a child.  My writing life has been influenced by possibly the same books on your shelf:  Cameron, Goldberg, Lamott, Dillard, Strunk and White, et al.

Over the past decade, my reading life got huge boosts from two people and two events.  My non-fiction editor and friend winter of beautyAndy Wilkinson pointed the way to great essayists:  E. B. White (which led to the poet Donald Hall, which led to both Rilke and Rumi), Verlyn Klinkenborg, Merrill Gilfillan, Terry Tempest Williams, and Dan Flores.  Andy directed me to Gretel Ehrlich and Robert Graves.  Hard books, hard reading, but well worth it, both because of their beauty and their aid in developing focus.  Andy gave me my own copy of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching.

Please join us tomorrow for the second installment of Amy’s reading and writing journey.

Published in: on December 19, 2013 at 6:30 am  Leave a Comment  
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