Monday, April 23, 2012

World Book Night

There are two kinds of people in the world: enthusiastic readers and reluctant readers.

Maybe it's because my mom was a librarian that I became such an avid reader. Maybe it's because reading came easily to me. Maybe it's because no matter how bored I was, I could always find something interesting to read. Reading saved me in elementary school, where I would race through my class work just so I could read my book of the moment. Some teachers loved that about me, others were annoyed. But I loved reading and read voraciously.

Until college. I had so much reading to do for my courses (and read so slowly) that I had very little time for pleasure reading. (The exception was sophomore year, when my roommate Sylvia and I went on a Harlequin Romance binge that was a combination of guilty pleasure and pure procrastination. Do not ask to see my transcripts from that year. It's not pretty.)

After college, I had a lot of reading to do for work and it took me a while rediscover the joys of pleasure reading and to give myself permission to enjoy it again. What a strange thought that I needed some kind of permission to enjoy reading. After I had babies (two that first time, remember), fiction reading again was relegated to the back burner as I pored over nonfiction titles like Having Twins, Your Premature Baby, and Helping Children Overcome Learning Disabilities. Reading was essential, but not really fun.

Then I convinced a couple of friends to start a book club. It wasn't an easy sell to these young mothers, who all felt overwhelmed and didn't relish the idea of deadlines. We agreed that you didn't have to finish the book to attend meetings, and it was great to have everyone's input on the titles we chose. I was making so many tough decisions in my real life, that simple choices, like what book to read, seemed overwhelming.

And then reading was fun again. And it has been ever since. So it breaks my reader's and writer's heart when I hear someone (two of my sons, for example) say that hate reading. How can you hate reading? It's just wrong. Reading is an escape, an adventure, a learning experience, a way to be someone else, to explore new worlds, to meet new people, to become a different creature all together. Nothing transports you the way reading can.

I have heard many times that authors write only half the book; readers write the other half, and every time a book is read or reread, it is rewritten. I love this sentiment, because it is exquisitely true. When you see a film, you may be transported, but you are being transported to someone else's vision. When you read a book, you create the characters and settings and events in your mind's eye. Yes, the writer draws the outline, but you paint the picture with all the colors of your imagination. It's synergy—the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects—in its purest form.

That's why I was so excited to be chosen to be a giver in this year's first annual World Book Night USA. The whole goal of World Book Night is to inspire reluctant or infrequent readers to read more and learn to love reading. The sponsors of the event printed thousands of special-edition copies of 30 chosen titles. Each giver then selected one title and picked up 20 copies of that book to distribute on April 23, 2012—World Book Night. Today!
I chose The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. When I first read it in 2004, it took me four tries to get past page 40, but once I did, I was hooked. It has become one of my favorite contemporary novels. In fact, I was so enamored by my experience reading it, that I wrote to Oprah for the chance to meet Barbara Kingsolver and have a bookclub dinner/discussion with the two of themWhile I wasn't chosen for the dinner (darn!), I was invited to be in the audience of the Oprah Show on the day the discussion aired. Here's my gushing epistle:

Dear Oprah, 
I recently finished reading Kingsolver's masterful "Poisonwood Bible" … or at least I thought I had. The characters, story and language of this book haunt me wherever I go. It may be that I, like Orleanna, have four children, including a set of twins (one of whom has different needs). Or maybe it's our family's recent camping trip, when all I could think about was preparing meals for my family in the conditions of Kilanga. Perhaps it was my stop at Old Orchard shopping center last Monday, when the pure volume of STUFF in just one store overwhelmed me—shamed me and our overindulged, ignorant nation. 
I was born in 1960, the year the Price family left for the Congo. The history spanned in this novel has been my history and I've known eve ry character of the book in my own life. Ms. Kingsolver's beautiful language eloquently expressed for me the one lesson I hope I have learned so far in life … that what you know to be absolutely true can be, and often is, completely wrong in other circumstances.  
By pure coincidence, my book club had chosen this book a few months ago. I couldn't even face the idea of a nearly 600-page, bible quoting novel about Africa. Now I can't believe it's over. I feel like this family will always be a part of me, that I will look at my abundant gifts with renewed thankfulness and that I will treasure the experiences of life with my family with less pettiness and more joy. It is the rare novel that inspires so much introspection—I just don't have that much time! But the "Poisonwood Bible" made me think about such things as parenting, politics, nature, marriage, racism, sexism, religion, tolerance, intolerance and the indescribable beauty of indoor plumbing, just to name a few.   
Finally, thanks to Adah, I'll never be able to read another sentence without trying read it backwards. It's driving me crazy! So, I'll end with my own palindrome.
Oprah, O, to go to Harpo! 
Please consider including me in your upcoming discussion of this wonderful book.
If you haven't read The Poisonwood Bible, go read it now. In the meantime, join me in celebrating World Book Night (WBN). It's such a thrill to be giving "permission" to some infrequent readers to really love fiction. Bookmark the WBN site so you can join in next year. Special thanks to The Book Stall in Winnetka for being a participating site (and being one of the most fabulous independent bookstores in the world). Finally, tell me, are you an enthusiastic or reluctant reader?


Candace said...

Thanks for sharing your letter about Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, Susan. Poisonwood is one of my favorites but I'm not good at remembering details years later. Your letter hit my refresh button.

Britton Minor said...

I too often wonder how I have influenced my children's reading. Out of five, I have two who LOVE reading, one who likes it a lot, one who would rather not, and one who hasn't quite decided yet-but loves being read to, or listening to books. I can't imagine my life without books!

I did not get past page 40 of "TPB," but will now, as you and others have told me how incredible the book is. I believe I even kept a copy, knowing that it was still on my to-read list.

Loved your Oprah letter.

Anonymous said...

I too loved, loved, loved Poisonwood Bible, and I too am an official giver tonight of books tonight. Originally I put PB as my first choice and then remembered how long it was. I was worried that the reluctant readers in South Berkeley might be put off by the length (and might be heavier for me to carry around!), so I chose another favorite book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. But I hope you are able to get many people who will read Barbara Kingsolver's masterpiece. Good luck handing out books!

Susan Bearman said...

Candace—I did remember loving the book, but the letter brought many of the details back to me, too.

Chai—I have one who loves reading, one who is a speed readers (it's astounding to watch him), and two who claim not to like it (especially fiction), but who are good readers. They still all like being read to (who doesn't!) Keep at TPB. You'll love it, too.

Tanya—How did your giveaway go. Mine was a bit low key as I worked with teachers at the local high school, but they were pretty excited and promised to share any feedback they get. I printed bookmarks with the WBN web address, a bit of why I chose this book and my email address. It would be so much fun to start a dialogue with some of my receivers. But you're right, next year I'm picking the lightest weight book!

Deborah Batterman said...

Even without a librarian for a mom, the library had such an impact me -- the quiet, almost sanctuary feel of it, all those books to be borrowed! And the notion of giving yourself permission to read for pleasure had some resonance. Anything that fires reluctant readers up can only be good. And 'The Poisonwood Bible' is a great book.