How my parents raised readers

Earlier this week, I went to the Toronto Reference Library to hear Will Schwalbe talk about his new memoir, Books for Living. At one point, he mentioned that his parents gave him and his siblings the greatest gift anyone can give someone: a love of reading.

This comment made me reflect on my own upbringing and how my parents managed to instil a love of reading in both my brother and me. Here are a few ways I think my parents managed to do just that.

They filled the house with books

My brother and I had our own bookshelves in our respective bedrooms, but there were books in the common areas of the house, too. There was a fair-sized bookcase in the living room and several others in the finished basement, all filled with books–everything from the classics to mystery novels to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

As a child, most of these books were above my reading level, but nothing was off limits to us. We could pick up any of the titles as we pleased. Even when I was too young to understand (or have an interest in) Thomas Hardy or Dylan Thomas, I still liked to run my fingers across the spines or flip through the pages of the books.

They read to us

Sometimes we’d sit on the couch together, and my parents would read a book to both me and my brother (Charlotte’s Web comes to mind). Other times, they would read to us in our bedrooms when we were being tucked in. Mom and Dad would take turns reading to each of us. I can’t say for certain, but I believe this happened every night–at least until we were too cool for it and preferred to read on our own.

They took us to the library

Our family visited our local branch of the public library frequently. It was something to do on a weekday evening or a weekend afternoon. Just going to the library and hanging out for a bit was fun, but of course we’d always bring a bundle of books home with us.

They gave us books as gifts

To this day, it’s been a tradition to give books as stocking stuffers in my family. It’s something we still look forward to: We all know we’re getting books; it’s just a question of which ones. Growing up, this small gesture helped ingrain in us the idea that books have a lot of value to offer. And not only did this ritual give us the joy of receiving books, but it taught us the joy of giving books, too.

Books can inform and educate, offer comfort, help us understand others and help us feel understood. So Schwalbe is right. A love of reading is the best gift you can give someone. And it’s something that, no matter what happens in life, no one can take away from them.

How did your bookshelves get so full?

I acquired many of my books in a similar fashion: I bought them from a bookstore, either on a whim or as a planned purchase. But whenever I look through my books, I realize that some are special to me not solely because of their content, but also because of the memory of how they landed on my bookshelves. Here are a few stories behind the how I came into some of my books.

The Id Kid by Linda Besner

The Id Kid — Linda Besner

I like going to readings, but most of the time I go to see writers I already admire. But every now and then, I go and see writers I’ve never heard of, and sometimes end up discovering someone I really like. This was the case with Linda Besner. I saw her read at Harbourfront Centre a couple of years ago, and enjoyed her poetry so much that I bought a copy of The Id Kid and got Besner to sign it after the reading.

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

All the Pretty Horses — Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was one of the books on the docket for an American literature course I took in university. As with most of the books I was required to read, I picked up this copy at the campus bookstore. It was the first Cormac McCarthy book I read, and I liked it quite a bit. But it’s difficult to know if the impression it made on me was the writing itself or if it was because I noticed similarities to my grandfather’s life, as he was a cowboy in the time period the book is set in. When I finished the book, I told my grandfather about it, which opened up a dialogue about some of his other life experiences. I’m not sure I would have heard those stories otherwise.

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

Lullabies for Little Criminals — Heather O’Neill

Earlier this year, I borrowed Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill from the library. I enjoyed it so much that I kind of wanted my own copy, but it didn’t seem practical to go to the bookstore to buy a book I’d just read. When I found a used copy at a book sale a few months later for $1.50, I took it as a sign that it was meant to be mine.

A Glossary of Literary Terms by M. H. Abrams

A Glossary of Literary Terms — M. H. Abrams

While in university, many of my professors recommended A Glossary of Literary Terms, but it was never a required text for any of my courses. The number of recommendations made me curious, and I decided I needed to get my hands on it. When I looked for the book online, I learned it was out of print. So I went to eBay—where I often looked for things I wanted to buy in the early 2000s—and I bought a used copy. I ended up citing it in a lot of my English essays, too. I guess those professors really do know what they’re talking about.

Jude the Obscure -- Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure — Thomas Hardy

I bought Jude the Obscure at my neighbourhood bookstore, which is not much of a story. The more interesting (and perhaps a little embarrassing) story is why I decided to read this book in the first place. Years ago, I saw an interview with Jude Law on a late-night talk show. Law mentioned he was named after the main character in Hardy’s book, remarking that it was odd for his parents to name their son after a character who has such miserable experiences. And that sounded like a book I wanted to read. So I guess sometimes watching television can lead to reading more books.

A Boy's Will and North of Boston -- Robert Frost

A Boy’s Will and North of Boston — Robert Frost

This book was given to me, but I’ve never met the gift-giver. The woman who gave me this book worked with my father when I was a teenager. I suppose my dad mentioned to her that I liked Robert Frost, and she gave him this book to pass on to me. I thought—and still think—that it was a very sweet thing to do.

Trainspotting -- Irvine Welsh

Trainspotting — Irvine Welsh

In high school, a friend gave me a copy of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting as a Christmas present. When I tried to read it, I had difficulty following because of the Scottish accent the book is written in. I ended up abandoning it, even though I absolutely loved the film. Years later, I realized that if I’d been able to tackle Chaucer, surely I could manage Welsh. I ended up liking the book even more than the film. I’m glad I gave this one a second chance.

Poems to Remember

Poems to Remember

I grew up in a house that had a lot of books in it. It wasn’t uncommon for my parents, my brother or me to look through the family-room bookshelves for something to read. But a few of those books didn’t make it back to those shelves and ended up leaving the house when I did. You could say they’re stolen, but I prefer to say they are on extended loan. Besides, the name scribbled on the inside cover of this copy of Poems to Remember belongs to my uncle. Whether he gave it to my parents or whether they stole it before I stole it, I doubt my parents remember (or my uncle, for that matter).

The Chairs Are Where the People Go -- Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

The Chairs Are Where the People Go — Misha Glouberman and Sheila Heti

Something that is really fun is when you win books. I haven’t won a lot of contests in my life, but the few times I have won mostly awarded me books. I won my copy of The Chairs Are Where the People Go from The Word on the Street book festival, when they ran a “guess the author” contest on Twitter a couple of years ago.

After looking over my shelves, I’ve realized my book collection needs more found books. If I take a trip to London, maybe I’ll find a book on the tube. It’s possible.

Literary Boston

I recently returned from a brief stay in Boston. It was my first time visiting the charming city, and there was a lot to see and do (certainly more than I had time for). I tasted some delicious seafood, watched whales swim off into the sunset in the middle of the ocean and wandered leisurely through many beautiful public spaces. But the sojourn also had a noticeable literary angle.

On my first full day, I visited the Boston Public Library. I was impressed with the building’s design. One of my favourite areas was the Bates Hall Reading Room. It was gorgeous and quiet and serene. I could have stayed there all day.

Bates Hall Reading Room at the Boston Public Library

As I peeked through one of the building’s windows, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the library’s courtyard. Later on I took the opportunity to go downstairs and wander around in it.

courtyard at the Boston Public Library

I stopped by the rare books section of the library. The featured exhibit was on Robert Browning, with some focus on his relationship with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I thought it was neat to see their marriage certificate up close.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s marriage certificate displayed in the Boston Public Library

Lucky for me, a literary landmarks walking tour was scheduled to take place during my stay. The tour started on the oldest street corner in Boston, near the building that used to be the Old Corner Bookstore. Not only was this building a bookstore, but it was also a publishing house. This is where books such as Walden and The Scarlet Letter were published. It’s now a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

What was once a bookstore and a publishing house is now a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The tour stopped by houses that were once lived in by such literary figures as Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. But I didn’t take many pictures of these houses. I was too busy imagining myself living in a different time.

Throughout my visit, I took the chance to browse in some of the bookstores I stumbled across. I especially enjoyed looking at books in the open air…and looking up at this neat mural. (I don’t remember the name of this bookstore, though.)

outdoor book-browsing

I told myself that I would only browse, and that I wouldn’t buy anything. But then I decided I’d let myself purchase one book. After all, it would be nice to have a souvenir. I thought Walden was appropriate enough. I picked up a copy at the Harvard Book Store.

Harvard Book Store

Harvard University

The trip had a great balance of activities and opportunities to relax. There was ample time to sit back with a book and some lovely settings in which to do so.

Public Garden

Yeah, I’d say Boston and I will meet again one day.

Philip Larkin and World Poetry Day

Philip Larkin is one of my all-time favourite poets. So I’m often reading his poems, or quoting him to other people, or trying to find out more about him. But earlier this week—on March 21, to be exact—I had Larkin on my mind more than usual.

One reason is because of World Poetry Day. I didn’t know it until this year, but March 21 was proclaimed World Poetry Day in 1999. After learning this, I thought about some of the poets I admire the most.

The Philip Larkin section from my bookshelf.

I reread a few of my favourite Larkin poems and reminisced about being in university and first encountering his work. I remember the first poem of his I ever read: “Reasons for Attendance.” It was in an introductory poetry class that all English majors had to take.

I went on to enrol in many other poetry classes throughout university. When school ended, my appreciation for Larkin remained. He’s such a skilled formal poet, and…well, his poetry is just so very English (which is a great thing, if you’re an Anglophile like I am).

But Larkin wasn’t only a poet. He was also a novelist, jazz critic and a librarian. I just recently learned that March 21 is not only World Poetry Day, but it’s also the anniversary of Larkin’s first day as a librarian at the University of Hull (he began there in 1955). So from now I’ll probably (quietly) celebrate March 21 as Philip Larkin Day.

People have different tastes. I know poetry isn’t for everyone, and I understand that even those who do enjoy it won’t necessarily be Larkin fans. But for those of you who aren’t familiar with him or his work, I wanted to introduce you to him. Maybe you’ll fall in love the same way I did, or (even better) in a way that is all your own.

Larkin reads “Going, Going”

Larkin reads “Aubade”

The significance of libraries

I’ve been thinking about libraries a lot lately. Partly because of a school project I’m working on, partly because of the threat that city council could close branches to save money.

But thinking about libraries isn’t a new thing for me. I recently dug up some older posts I wrote (originally posted on blogs that I no longer update).

Here’s something I wrote in March 2006, when I was in university:

I went to the library at school today (yes, on a Saturday). I went because I feel like I am so behind, and I was not looking forward to spending the day at school. But I love libraries. They are so quiet and peaceful. And then there are the books. I can be sitting at my computer with the world wide web at my fingertips, but being surrounded by such a vast number of tangible resources really gives a sense of the large amount of information and ideas out there.

 Anyway, I had fun researching for a couple of essays I have coming up. The stress isn’t as great now that I know what I am writing about, and I’m getting into it.

 I wandered through rows and rows of books with no one around. It was a really serene day. And then off to read by the floor-to-ceiling windows with the sunshine pouring onto the pages. It made me feel good about what I’m doing. It reminded me of when I was little and told my mom I wanted to move into the library.

The library was vital to my university experience. I went to the library to find books and to get help from the librarian to conduct research for papers. I went to the library when I needed access to a computer. I went to the library to find some quiet study space. But I also spent time there to relax.

I visited that university library in June 2010, a few years after I graduated:

It’s pouring outside, but I find warmth surrounded by these concrete walls. I haven’t been here in a while, but it feels like I’ve never left. The silence. The serenity. Nothing compares to the comfort of a library. 

My memory tells my feet where to take me. I’m led to the same rows of books I would duck into in between classes or when the day was done and I just wasn’t ready to go home yet. 

Almost nothing has changed. Many of the books I used to pick up are on the same shelves—the same books that provided me with comfort and entertainment years ago. Everything appears to be placed where it was when I left. For some reason, it strikes me that even the lighting is the same. Well, of course it would be, I think to myself. But it makes me feel as if I’ve gone back in time—or as if time stood still, waiting for me to return to where I belong.

I walk slowly through the stacks, glancing left and right, up and down. Wordsworth, Beckett, Coleridge, Keats, Emerson, Dryden, Woolf, Milton, Chaucer.

As I glance at these names, one book in particular comes to the forefront of my mind. I remember searching for it on these exact shelves after a professor mentioned it in class. It’s probably still here. I look up and down the aisles. I only have a few minutes—not enough time to go back and look it up in the catalogue. I can remember what it looks like. I can still feel its weight in my hands.

It’s almost time to go; I’m going to miss my bus. I become slightly frantic as I’m now determined to find it. Aha! I spot the T.S. Eliot section. But there are many, many books here. My fingers trace the spines as I search, moving faster and faster, still trying to look at each title thoroughly so I don’t miss it. And then, when I’ve almost given up, I see it. It sits on the bottom shelf, almost at the floor. The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts.

The big, blue hardcover calls out to me to pick it up. I know I am not able to check this book out, that I can’t take it home with me. I need to get going. But I slide it out of its place anyway. I turn the pages and notice how they’ve yellowed at the corners. I breathe in the familiar musty scent. But time has run out. I put it back with the other Eliot works. 

As I rush to the bus stop, I wonder how many students, if any, have checked out that volume since the last time I did. I smile to myself as I imagine some nerdy girl or boy finding comfort walking amongst those literary giants.

When I think about it, it seems a bit odd that The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts was the book I felt compelled to look for. But when I think about it some more, it doesn’t seem so odd. I didn’t know it existed until that day our professor told us about it in class. When I checked it out of the library, I remember how cool it was to see Eliot’s handwritten notes and Ezra Pound’s handwritten edits. So it always stuck with me.

Even though I love looking for books in libraries, throughout my life, libraries have been more than a place to find information. They’ve been more than a place to find something entertaining to read. I’ve always thought of the library as my refuge; it’s the place I could go to when things got to be too much.

But even this isn’t why I think libraries are so significant. Libraries are centres that bring the community together. They give everyone equal access to information and the opportunity for education.

The Toronto Public Library offers everything from tutoring services, ESL programs, book clubs, job search help, legal services, health and wellness programs and a lot more. A couple of years ago I read an article about a homeless man who spent his days at the Toronto Reference Library. Through the use of the library’s resources, he was able to start his own business and get back on his feet.

So if you’re someone who thinks libraries aren’t important simply because you don’t check out materials, think again. There is so much more to libraries than the books they hold.