On Omnivorous Reading: A Tribute

About two years ago, I sent my 80-year-old grandmother a copy of The Martian, by Andy Weir, having forgotten that the first line of the novel is “I’m pretty much fucked.” That’s how I felt when I remembered it a day later, when the book was already on a truck headed for her house in the suburbs of Buffalo.

Turns out I shouldn’t have worried; as you might suspect, given that I assumed she’d want to read The Martian in the first place, Grammie told me later that she liked the novel “very much,” her highest form of praise for books and movies, even saying, with a laugh, that she appreciated the profanity because “who wouldn’t curse in that kind of situation?” She said The Martian would be one of those books she re-read once a year or so as a treat. I’m not sure she ever did get a chance to re-read it; I forgot to ask about it in our conversations over the last few months.

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother's copy of Jane Eyre.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” This is my grandmother’s copy of Jane Eyre.

Grammie died last week, and I miss her already. I loved her very much, and was always pleased that we shared a favorite color and a favorite novel, Jane Eyre. She had the same patience with me that Helen Burns had for Jane; like Helen, she quietly accepted life’s troubles, her stoicism always a source of curiosity to me (I have the temperament, I should perhaps regret to say, of ten-year-old Jane).

Like Helen, whom Jane meets when she’s reading Johnson’s Rasselas, Grammie was a reader. I’ve written before about my parents’ love of reading and the effort they put into our reading lives, but I’ve never talked much about Grammie, and just how important she was to me, not only in the familiar grandmotherly ways—stroganoff, hamburgers in gravy, perfect chocolate cakes chilled in the fridge, quality time with her skinny hairbrush and Johnson’s no-more-tangles, birthday cards with the most even and lovely penmanship I’ve ever seen, love and support through the very best and worst of times—but also in shaping the way I read. By her example, my grandmother taught me that reading offers not only the pursuit of knowledge or the cultivation of empathy, but also pleasure and enjoyment.

When I was a child I watched my Grammie read from a distance. As Jane Eyre recalls of Helen, “I think her occupation touched a chord of sympathy somewhere; for I too liked reading, though of a frivolous and childish kind; I could not digest or comprehend the serious or substantial.” Grammie  read everything, it seemed—novels about submarines, true tales of disaster and survival (believe me, there was nary a chick flick to be found on her movie shelf), classics like Kristin Lavransdatter.

Grammie's living room bookshelf.

Grammie’s living room bookshelf.

On her living room shelves in Buffalo were handsome 1960s volumes of major authors (Melville, Hugo, Petrarch, Dante, Dickens, Montaigne), while upstairs paperbacks left behind by my uncles (I read all  Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels one summer) jostled with nonfiction history from college courses and late-60s/early-70s bestsellers (thanks to which I can report with confidence that Love Story is truly terrible and The Godfather is way raunchier than the movie). Whenever I happened into Grammie’s room there’d be a book on the nightstand (which now sits in my room) or on the nubbly white bedspread, usually with a sticker around its spine and a dust jacket; Grammie was a devoted patron of her public library. Hers was a house of books; there was always something to read, no matter what mood you were in.

Just as important as her example of omnivorous reading was her refusal to dictate what anyone else read. Grammie (like my other grandmother) was a teacher and then a homemaker, raising a family of readers (and teachers) with tastes as diverse as her own. She lived alone for more than twenty-five years, her solitude interrupted by periods when she helped to care for two separate sets of grandchildren while their mothers studied for graduate degrees. When she lived with us from when I was 7 until I was 10, every Saturday morning brought chores first, then a trip to Blockbuster (Goonies and Meatballs were perennial favorites) and the library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The fountain at the former SEL library.

The library in this little Cleveland suburb was like something out of a fairytale—a big Tudor mansion spangled with light (alas, it has been sold and is no longer a library). It featured slate floors, marble fireplaces, indoor plants, a burbling fountain, oddly-shaped rooms, twisty corridors, and nooks for a little reader to hide in. When we arrived at the library those Saturday mornings, Grammie took my younger sister to pick out books (hers and my sister’s), and left my brother and me to find our own. Every week for a long time I took out seven Nancy Drew books, the old editions with golden-yellow spines grayed by many grubby hands and black-edged pages that I now collect. Never once did she tell me I’d taken out too many books, never told me a little girl couldn’t read that many in a week. So I assumed I could, and every Saturday I came back for seven more until I’d read them all, and then I moved on to other authors, from Lois Lowry to Anne Frank to Judy Blume to Madeleine L’Engle. Grammie never once told me that I shouldn’t read a book because it was too mature for me; she let me and my siblings read as we chose, allowing us to develop our own tastes (a trait my parents also shared).

IMG_6163Like Jane Eyre observing Helen Burns in Lowood’s schoolyard and then peppering her with questions about her book, I loved to call up Grammie and chat with her about what she was reading. Usually it was something I hadn’t heard of, since she read quite a bit of nonfiction. One of the last times we talked about books, though, before she got sick enough that we spoke mostly about the weather or what shenanigans her great-grandson was up to, she told me she was re-reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, an oft-neglected nineteenth-century classic by Sarah Orne Jewett that I didn’t encounter until a graduate school seminar nearly ten years ago. I went to my shelf to pull out my copy, flipping through a few dog-eared pages, and read her the passage that had stayed with me, and which I’ve been coming back to over and over again this week:

There was the world, and here was she with eternity well begun. In the life of each of us, I said to myself, there is a place remote and islanded, and given to endless regret or secret happiness; we are each the uncompanioned hermit and recluse of an hour or a day; we understand our fellows of the cell to whatever age of history they may belong.

 

“Yes,” she said. “I like that very much.”

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