The More Common Reader

This essay about my love of reading was written a few years ago. I’ve decided to share it here.

Learning of my life-long love for reading, a co-worker recently left his copy of Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) on my desk. The title of this exquisite collection of essays led me by the hand. I was eager to compare notes with a “kindred spirit.”

But wait.

Within the first few pages, I realized Fadiman’s experience with books was a yellow brick road away from my own. Was her background really so “common”?

Born in 1953 and a native of New York, Fadiman toddled into a family of literati with a stacked-to-the-ceiling home library. Their tomes numbered in the thousands, complete with various sets of Shakespeare and every deceased European writer and living American writer of any merit. Fadiman’s love of books was both nature and nurture – as a toddler, she noted that she used leather-bound classics as building blocks.

I, in comparison, was born in 1957 and grew up on a farm near Marcus, Iowa, with six siblings. My reading at home included a set of the Book of Knowledge and Grolier’s encyclopedias, Reader’s Digest condensed books, a jumbo box of comics bought at a farm sale, dated medical books, a handful of cardboard-cover classics, sundry magazines, a fat family Bible and a huge assortment of Scholastic paperbacks bought with dimes and nickels at school.

Plus, I owned a library card – meaning, to me at least, a renewable and higher-than-the-sky source of books, books and more books.

I lie.

There was no library card. At the Marcus Library, all I had to do was write my name on the small lined “Date due” card that the librarian then stamped and returned to me.

Actually, there wasn’t even a real library in the early 1960s, just a large room in the small town’s municipal building on Main Street. However, that all changed when a generous soul left the town enough money to build the W.L. Gund Memorial Library on a quiet, tree-lined street off Main.

Here, then, a well-heeled, old lady planted the seed of my love affair with books.

One day a week after lunch, students at Holy Name Catholic School, which I attended through eighth grade, were allowed to walk the four blocks to the then brand-new town library to take out books. I went, no pun intended, religiously.

I still remember moving from the children’s book room, to the young adult section, and then the adult shelves – worried that someone would pull me back, set down limits. But the librarian never said a word – and my world grew wide and deeper, with more stories and characters and worlds each time.

Throughout high school, my love affair with books took a nosedive as it competed with real-life crushes on basketball stars and bad boys and a few boyfriends who never whispered the titles of books in my ear. But looking back at my senior memory book, I realized that I must have spent some hours reading because that was the year I read Gone With the Wind, In Cold Blood and Go Tell It on the Mountain. So, no doubt the love for books endured.

Today, I live halfway across the country, but every year when I return to Marcus to visit family and friends, I make sure to walk the familiar blocks to the library to wander among the displays of books, use the computer and read the local newspapers. The building’s quiet hum and sense of cool composure always takes me back to my early fondness for this calm space and the wealth it still offers.

I may have envied Fadiman’s comfortable world where a roomful of books from floor to ceiling was a closed door away, but not for long. Without having met her, I know I have experienced the same sense of discovery, the same feeling of being lost in worlds I would never have known except in Garamond typeface.

In two very different worlds, we both found a love for the written word because someone made sure we had the opportunity to do so. As common readers, I know we are both forever grateful.