Book Reading Contest

A friend recently challenged me to a book reading contest. Or maybe it was my idea – the details are a bit fuzzy. Anyway, he and I tend towards very different kinds of books. My bookshelves are primarily filled with works of fiction – adventure and sci-fi stories mostly, with a slight emphasis on the classics. Cookbooks would be my second-largest category, with a few non-fiction and political books to round things out. His reading history, on the other hand, is full of non-fiction – religious, political, and biographies. Supplemented with a healthy dose of young adult fiction. So we each made a list of 5 books – it wasn’t hard for either of us to think of 5 that the other hadn’t read – and swapped lists. The first one to read all 5 gets a prize from the other (we finally agreed on truffles since we both love chocolate).

So, properly motivated, I tackled his list. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to like more than maybe one of his books. I mean, if they were worth reading, they would have already been on my never-ending reading list – right? The first two have pleasantly surprised me. I really enjoyed both. Number 3 is a little bit weird; I don’t yet know how I feel about it. Books 4 and 5 look alright – I read a chapter or two of each whenever I get bored with #3.

I have no doubt that I will win our little book reading contest. I am highly competitive and a very fast reader. (I once read an 800-page book in less than 24 hours.) On the other hand, he could surprise me. But that’s not really the point. The point is having fun. And reading good books that neither of us would have picked up on our own. I know I never would have looked twice at any of these books had I come across them at the library or bookstore. And he’s never heard of any of the books I put on his list. And new reading material is never a bad thing.

This is why I typically say “books” when someone asks me what I want for my birthday or Christmas. Sometimes I’ll point them in a particular direction, sometimes I’ll leave it wide open. The latter is riskier because you never know what you’re gonna get, but it’s also way more fun. I can always tell who’s a reader and who isn’t by the book they choose. The non-readers play it safe with a generic uplifting piece like “The Power of Positive Thoughts,” or something like that. They pick something based on its cover. Something easy to read and just as easy to forget. The readers, on the other hand, that’s where things get interesting. Nine times out of 10, the book they choose is one they’ve read and loved themselves. And I love it. It’s so cool to pick up a book that someone you know has selected for you. It’s both a glimpse into who they are and a chance to expand your reading horizons. A double win in my book.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. One of the greatest books ever written and one of my personal favorites. Certainly my favorite romance novel. Exceptionally well-written in an easy conversational tone, Brontë’s choice to use a first-person narrative style was spot-on. She, speaking as Jane, makes the reader feel as if she were an old friend who dropped in for a pot of tea and a nice long talk.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the poignancy of Charlotte Brontë’s writing in Jane Eyre is the semi-autobiographical nature of the story. As a child, she attended a harsh boarding school which she would later base Lowood upon. Both of her older sisters died there of tuberculosis, just as Jane’s young friend Helen Burns died at Lowood. Charlotte blamed the harsh and unhealthy conditions of the school for her sisters’ deaths. Charlotte and her younger sister Emily were removed from boarding school after Maria and Elizabeth died. They returned home to their clergyman father, younger sister Anne, and brother Branwell. Charlotte later attended a much better boarding school, where she eventually became a teacher. Again, this correlates with Jane Eyre’s history. So too, does the fact that Charlotte worked as a governess when her days as a teacher were over.

Published under the nom de plume of Currer Bell (both for anonymity’s sake and to hide her gender), Jane Eyre was initially a huge success. Critics adored it and it was immediately a commercial smash hit. Once the critics suspected that Jane Eyre had been penned by a woman, the reviews were less than favorable. Sales remained strong, however, whether in spite of or because of the criticism no one can say. I maintain that Jane Eyre’s success is due to its first-rate writing, gripping plot, and innovative first person style.

Our story begins with young orphan Jane, her hateful Aunt Reed, and 3 horrid cousins. Cast off by Mrs. Reed and sent to Lowood, a charity school, Jane Eyre survives hardship and privation and the wretched Mr. Brocklehurst for 10 years (8 as a student and 2 as a teacher). When she advertises her services as a governess, she is hired by Mrs. Fairfax to teach Adele Varens, ward of Edward Rochester. Thornfield, the Rochester estate, is a grim and gloomy place; and Adele, but lately arrived from France, speaks little English and has even less discipline. But Mrs. Fairfax is kind and Adele is sweet and Jane is determined to make the best of it. At the end of 3 months, Adele is much improved and Thornfield has begun to feel like home. Just as a comfortable routine is formed, the absent master returns and tumbles Jane’s world topsy-turvy.

Intelligent, well-educated, and widely travelled, Edward Rochester is life and nourishment to Jane’s hungry soul. She, in turn, is a breath of sweetness and innocence to world-weary and heart-sick Rochester. They two form an unlikely friendship and, as time passes, settle into a new routine. The first upheaval comes in the form of Miss Blanche Ingram and her party of friends and family, who come for a several-week stay at Thornfield. Mr. Rochester seems much taken with Miss Ingram, and rumor has it that the engagement will be announced any day. The second twist is Mrs. Reed’s deathbed request to see Jane. Before she dies, she confesses to Jane that she has a wealthy uncle who, through Mrs. Reed’s deception, believes Jane to be dead.

When Jane returns to Thornfield, the Ingram party has left, but there is no talk of an impending marriage. This puzzles her for some time, until Edward Rochester declares his love for her and asks her to be his wife. One month of nearly-perfect bliss follows. Until, on her wedding day, a secret is revealed that tears Jane irrevocably from her beloved’s side. Dark days follow for our plucky heroine, but she ultimately finds peace and, eventually, happiness, although not in the way one might expect. Jane Eyre is truly a masterpiece of narrative fiction.

Books Are Incredible

Books are incredible. Amazing. Magical. A treasure more valuable than the sum of all the precious metals in the whole world. A book is worth its weight in gold. Well, most are. Some are just garbage, good only for kindling. Although I personally would have a hard time doing that to any book. When I was maybe 10 or 12, I started reading Fahrenheit 451. I did not finish. It is supposed to be a fabulous book, but I do not know. I got as far as the first book-burning and had to put it down. It literally made me feel sick. Ironically, the whole point of the book is how important books are. Which is great, and I totally agree, I just couldn’t stomach the idea of books being burned. How anyone could do that is beyond me.

I also have a hard time grasping the notion of getting rid of books. I currently have boxes and boxes of books waiting for the day that I have a place big enough to put them all out on bookshelves. Some think I’m crazy for hanging on to them for so long and through so many moves. Maybe I am. So what? There are certainly worse types of crazy. The other day I awarded myself the herculean task of sorting and repacking and making an inventory of my books. I made the mistake of assuming that it would be easy. Physically, it was. But I was not prepared for the emotional turbulence I encountered. Part of me enjoyed going through all my books. I love all books and most of these are long-time favorites. It was like visiting an old friend.

But it was also very hard at the same time. My Mama was the one who taught me to love reading and a large portion of the books in those boxes were ones she had given me. Some were picture books she read to me when I was little. And I realized all over again that she will never read them to my kids. I will never get even one more book with an inscription in her handwriting. But then on the other hand, I am so incredibly blessed to have both these books from her and all the beautiful memories of being read to and reading together. Nothing can ever take that away.

Someday I hope to raise a houseful of kids. Several years ago, I sketched my ideas for the perfect house. It’s a big, sprawling 2-story with a super-awesome kitchen, a courtyard complete with fountain, balconies on the second story – everything I could ask for in my dream home. But the feature I love most is the library, the biggest room in the whole darn thing. With floor-to-ceiling bookcases on every wall, a desk in the middle of the room, and comfortable seating scattered around. A sanctuary where my kids can discover the same love for books and reading that my Mama gave me. If they have that, then I will consider myself a successful mother. There’s nothing more important than family – but books are a really close second.books

Library Lil and Bookworm Bill

Library LilI bet you think all librarians are mousy little old ladies. Hair rolled up in a bun. Beady eyes peering out at you over the tops of those funny half-glasses. An index finger permanently attached to lips mouthing “Shhh.” Bet you never heard about Library Lil.

Of course, before she was a librarian, Lil was an ordinary little girl. Who always had a book in her hand. From the bathtub to the soccer field, wherever you found Lil, you were bound to find a book. By the time she was 8, she’d read every children’s book at the local library. So she started on encyclopedias. She’d check out a whole set at once. That’s how she got to be so strong – she’d walk down the street with Volume A in one hand and B through Z in the other.

So no one was surprised when she grew up and became a librarian in a nearby town. There was just one itty-bitty problem: the people of Chesterville weren’t readers. They were TV addicts. Now Lil hated TV. In her mind, it was “right up there with poison ivy and mosquitoes.” She got her chance to make a change when a storm knocked the power out for 2 weeks. By the time they had electricity back on, the townsfolk had been completely won over from TV to books. This suits Lil and everyone else just fine – until Bust-‘em-up Bill and his motorcycle gang ride into town.

In the ordinary course of things, Bill and Lil would never have met. But as it happens, Bill is fond of watching pro wrestling on Tuesday nights. And when he finds out that Lil is the reason he can’t find a TV to watch his favorite program – well, let’s just say that sparks are about to fly. A showdown between a librarian and a motorcycle gang – it would seem that the outcome is easy to predict. But to do so is to underestimate our plucky heroine. Bill and his boys have finally met their match – and maybe Library Lil has too.

Chestry Oak, Symbol of Hope

Chestry OakThe Chestry Oak is, in my opinion, the best piece of children’s literature – ever. Written and illustrated by Kate Seredy in 1948, this book has stood and will continue to stand the test of time. They say a picture is worth a thousand words – not so. This book uses words to create a masterpiece of ageless truths and ideals. Honor, courage, pride, the strength and resilience of the human spirit, boundless love, and, above all, unbreakable hope. Very few books are either beautiful or powerful enough to leap off the page, grab a reader by the collar, and hold him spellbound to the last line. The Chestry Oak is such a book. At once soul-stirringly powerful and heart-wrenchingly beautiful, this is fiction at its finest. Great literature changes us on the inside, changes us for the better. We need more boys, girls, men, and women like the little Hungarian prince.

The place: Chestry Valley, Hungary. The time: World War II. The principal players: little Prince Michael, his Nana, and his father, who is also a prince. The Chestry princes go back hundreds of years to a knight who fought with Saint Stephen against the infidels. Sir Michael was tasked with guarding King Stephen as he slept beneath a great oak (the Chestry Oak, as it would come to be known). For his courage and honor in carrying out his task, the King crowned Sir Michael a prince and gave him the little kingdom of Chestry Valley. Some several hundred years later and the princes of Chestry are facing another horde of infidels: the Nazis. Six year old Michael, or Miska as he is affectionately called, does not understand the ins and outs of war, or why the Nazis are living in his father’s castle, or who the man with the funny mustache is. And yet, he understands more than most of the grownups, for he is wise beyond his years.

Raised under the loving care of a nurse, Mari Vitez or “Nana,” Miska has been taught to distinguish right from wrong, courage from cowardice, honor from disgrace, and to always choose the higher path. Young as he is, the seeds of manhood have already been planted deep in his soul and his tender character is already firmly established on the side of good. To him, the only possible explanation for the wicked things the bad men are doing is that they are sick with a dreadful fever and cannot see the world right. That’s actually a pretty accurate way of looking at it. Michael, with the simplicity of a child, shows us all that we make things more complicated than they need to be. He also shows us what it means to stand in the courage of one’s convictions.

This book is a masterpiece for three reasons: 1. Kate Seredy’s impeccable mastery of the English language; 2. a gripping plot; and 3. the coupling of untarnished innocence and profound wisdom in our hero. It is truly a great book; I strongly urge you to read it for yourself.