I can pinpoint the exact period in my life when I consciously became a reader. Not a dabbler, who picks up a book only when the TV is off, or when boredom strikes. But a reader reader, who can’t be without a book, who stockpiles future reads like a doomsday prepper stashing away canned goods. The thought of being caught without a book to read? Horrifying.
It was in the opening weeks of seventh grade. I’d just moved across town, to a new house and a new school. I only knew one person in my class, a fellow member of Madison Children’s Choir who was nice enough, but we never seemed to form a solid connection. I can't even remember her name right now. Melissa Something, maybe?So instead I sought out the library. Our middle school librarian was a small, dark-haired woman who happened to live across the street from my grandparents, and would often come over with her grandchildren to swim in the backyard pool. By seeking out the library, I was seeking out one of the only familiar things available to me in the scary tumult of a new school.
I would chat with the librarian—torn between the comfort of someone familiar, and that strange brand of peer-induced shame at being overly friendly with a school figure—and then disappear into the stacks. Perhaps The Boxcar Children (by Gertrude Chandler Warner) was a recommendation from the librarian, or maybe I stumbled upon it by myself, I don’t remember. But I do remember devouring it like no book that came before. And then, in quick succession, its many sequels.
Next came, if I remember correctly, Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry. It had sequels, too. Then my reading life quickly becomes a blur, too crowded to remember a distinct order. I know some time in my early teens I read a rash of Louis L’Amours. No idea where the cowboy fetish came from. And in high school (and continuing to this day) a parade of Stephen Kings. I haven’t kept track, but I’d guess I’m at least three quarters of the way through his catalog by now. I also went through a classics phase, with Jane Austen always being a favorite, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daphne DuMaurier, O. Henry, the Brontës, and Dickens not too far behind.
And that brings me to now. I’m busy, like we all are, but I still find time to read. More to the point, I make the time. Since having kids, I usually fall into the 50-60 books per year range. But how do I choose which ones to spend my time on? There are so many out there, more every day. I like all genres, from sci-fi to romance to memoir to literary fiction and beyond. I subscribe to book newsletters, listen to book podcasts, visit book websites, and talk books with my friends. My to-read list on Goodreads currently numbers 472. I tend to fall into the trap of choosing newly published books, mostly because they are the shiny new things buzzed about on all the sources I ingest.
Then one day, in early 2014, I was having one of my too-rare get-togethers with my favorite bookish friend Carmen (she runs the super-cool Snail Mail Book Club of which I am a member, a low-pressure reading group where the reviews are mailed in and shared via newsletter) and we were talking books, as we often do. I can’t remember which of us first brought up the idea of the Century of Books Challenge, but I found the idea immediately intriguing, and Carmen agreed: read a book published in every year of the 20th century, and do it all in one year. Well, I was about five months pregnant at the time, had a 2-and-a-half-year-old at home, and a full time job. I was absolutely not going to be able to read 100 books in 2014. Screw that noise, we said, and made up our own rules.
Rule 1: In honor of the (then) newly-minted year of 2014, we would read books from 1914-2014.
Rule 2: We would take as long as we damn well wanted to finish the list.
Rule 3: We didn’t have to be exclusive; if we wanted to grab that shiny new book off the shelf, even after we’d filled the 2014 slot on our tally, who cares?
Cut to today, in the waning weeks of 2016. I haven't checked in with Carmen lately, but my progress is as follows: I’ve read 41 books that qualify for the Cayce-Carmen 2014 Century Challenge. Most authors only appear once, but there are two Stephen Kings, two Elmore Leonards, and three of John D. MacDonald’s colorful Travis McGee series, which I have come to love so much that I dole them out, only allowing myself two or three a year, because I know I will fall into a reader’s depression once I’m done with all twenty-one. (Currently waiting on my Kindle is #15, The Turquoise Lament.)
I’m struck, as I look over my list, how much more memorable the books from the first half of my century are than those from the last. The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (1926), Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (1937), The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952) and The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963) are all voices that still ring clearly in my mind. And a special shout-out must be made to the audiobook version of The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (1951), read by Colin Firth. Whenever I think back on that book, I can still hear Firth saying Bendrix in my head, in that posh but slightly nebbish way of his. Gorgeous.
As often happens when a year wraps up, we take stock of things. And in taking stock of my reading habits, I’m going to re-devote myself to my Century of Books. Especially the early years. And I think I’m going to start by re-reading The Boxcar Children, first published in 1942, one of the years I have yet to fill.
[Pause as I add it to my library hold list... There, done!]
I hope when my copy comes, it has one of those patterned hardback library buckram book bindings, straight out of the 70s. I hope it’s olive green with a faded argyle pattern. I hope the pages have gone soft and rounded at the edges, from hundreds of young readers turning them. I hope it smells like old paper and library basements and all the homes it has ever spent time in.
Most of all, I hope I still enjoy it. And if not—if it doesn’t hold up and I’ve outgrown its charm—there’s always the next book, and the one after that...
Any suggestions on what I should read next? Please share!