Knowing authors through what they write

I used to work in a bookstore and I was daily enthralled to be surrounded by all those choices. No matter what the genre, we are forever able to peruse stacks and stacks of options and there will never be enough time to read all the books I intend to read.

In my childhood home, we didn't get a television until I was 12. Many times this was embarrassing for me; I even recall lying to elementary school classmates when they asked if I'd seen something on TV the night before. "Our TV is in the shop." "Oh." Then later, "It's still in the shop?!" I don't recall ever really asking my parents why we couldn't have a television. We just didn't. And when we did get one, it was very exciting, but not in the way you'd think. We didn't all pile into the car and go to Sears and pick one out, bring it home and remove it from the box. Instead, likely someone else's family had that experience, and they offered their old one - a black and white in a wooden case, no less - to us. So one day it was just there.

In retrospect, and now understanding the way my parents' minds work a little better, I realize that it truly wasn't a very big priority. We didn't have a lot of money - both my parents went back to college to get additional degrees, then advanced ones - and truly they just didn't care to see what was on TV. Their lives were so filled with raising this brood of noisy kids (there were only 3 but now that feels like so many to me, a woman who is not a mother,) and then having the added pressure school work can impose.

We were readers. I can't imagine how many books passed through our hands over the course of my childhood, and the love of reading was permanently imbedded in my psyche from the beginning.

I first realized, "from the inside," a little about how my parents had come to not have a TV when I lived in my first apartment and someone asked me where the TV was. I didn't have one and this friend seemed so perplexed. "Well I work all the time, then I go out with my friends, I'm taking care of these kittens, there's all this housework, and I'd rather play music and dance, or read a book, than watch TV." It was an eye-opening conversation. By then I was most certainly not "a nerdy girl" like such a conversation might have led someone to believe. In fact, I think such a disclosure was particularly perplexing to my friends. I seemed sort of normal, finally. Very social, very aware of pop culture, very in tune with, well, things most 24 year olds are concerned with. And I didn't have time to really worry about television. As my parents before me had not.

Now we all watch far too much, and while we're all addicted to the occasional show or two, we'd probably all do better if we got rid of those TV's.

I'm thinking about my lifelong relationship (or lack thereof) with televisions this morning, specifically in how it relates to my relationship with books. It had only been natural that I'd loved my job at the bookstore and even after I left there, I continued to read voraciously.

But during the past few years, something changed. I rarely read books. I say I'd like to, but I don't have the time. I'm too busy learning how to do this or that with a computer, reading blogs, taking pictures, making something with clay. My learning has simply moved over in another direction. I certainly read the occasional book, and when I do, I'm wistful, introspective...wondering how it came to be that I no longer read a book a week. I think it's also mixed up in the A.D.D. factor. Let's not forget that. How an hour-long television show is something I can commit to finishing, whereas the hours it takes to finish a book may not happen. Not that I couldn't...I just forget to come back to it. That was a big part of my transition away from books, I see.

At any rate, how's that for a long setup? I was going to write about Anne Lamott. And I'll do that now. I read Bird by Bird years ago, fell utterly in love with this woman's writing style, with her exhuberence, with her raw humanity that doesn't hide anything...even the ugly parts...and wanted to read more. I knew she'd written novels, a book on parenting, a book on faith. I bought one of her novels at a bad time. Meaning, a bad time for me to get into anything long that requires commitment to finish. (Bird by Bird can be read in segments. It's not a novel.) So I never finished the novel.

Fast forward to my current life. Busier'n ever, trying to finish things, not begin them, I'm sleeping in a room flanked by a wall of books. No lie, the entire wall is covered in them. And some of them are great books. Books I've read before, those I'd read again, and others I've wanted to read in the future.

Yesterday I picked up Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott and you guessed it. I can barely put it down. This is great, since I still love her writing style, and not so great since, well, I'm behind on so many things already. But reading it, I've just come to a part that struck me really hard. Her friend Pammy died. I wasn't prepared for that. Nor was I prepared for the fact that it shocked me so much. People die...all the time. Why am I mourning the loss of Pammy, whom I didn't know?

Well, see, that's the thing about our current world. Media of all sorts brings us into the homes and lives of people we will never know. Personalities and ordinary citizens like ourselves. And if the book is written well, or the movie directed stellarly, we eventually start to feel we know "these people." And whether or not it's presented well at all, if we see a celebrity on this or that interview, over the years we start to feel we have a right to their story, too. They become a part of our lives, just like the old man who lives in this neighborhood, who stops to bring people's trash cans up to their doors if they're left by the road too long on trash day. (I beat him to ours this week, but he still got the neighbors'.) They weave themselves into our dialogues and our thoughts...even our dreams. And so, having read Anne Lamott's story all those years ago, and again later, I came to love her in a way you can love someone you'll never meet. Probably. (I like to think I could meet her one day. Why not?) So this morning when I read that her best friend, I was crushed. For her, for Pammy's family, for Anne's son, Sam. And everyone else who truly lost her.

I'll finish the book, although I did have to put it down. I have a meeting in less than two hours (which had to be rescheduled when I locked my keys inside last night as I was leaving for that very meeting, then got to wait outside in the cold for nearly two hours, but that's another story I'll tell you about later,) and need to get some things done before then.

But I'm thinking about books. And how I think I'll make a greater effort to read more. Again. I don't have to watch TV before bed at night. I can start a new, old, new tradition! Just think of it...