ERIN BARTELS is the award-winning author of We Hope for Better Things, The Words between Us, All That We Carried, and The Girl Who Could Breathe Under Water. Her short story “This Elegant Ruin” was a finalist in The Saturday Evening Post 2014 Great American Fiction Contest and her poetry has been published by The Lyric. She lives in the capital city of a state that is 40% water, nestled somewhere between angry protesters on the Capitol lawn and couch-burning frat boys at Michigan State University. And yet, she claims it is really quite peaceful.
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Not Quite My Life Story (in Books)
From the time I was very young, I have always been a voracious reader. In fact, I find that I can think of my entire life in terms of books. I know how old I was when I read The Lord of the Rings trilogy for the first time (a junior in high school) and I can remember an entire summer of reading L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables books every day while drinking tea from my mom’s collection of antique china cups and saucers (a different cup for each different kind of tea) while classical music played on my dad’s stereo in the background—this went on every day for weeks and culminated in me polishing all of the silver in the house because Anne did that in one of the books (it took forever, and imagine my dismay when after all that work it became tarnished again).
I remember when I finally decided that I loved Emily Dickinson, whom I had found rather obscure and intractable at first, and Ernest Hemingway, who I couldn’t stand in high school but appreciated in college. I remember that I was the only one in my class (actually, the only person I know of) who hated The Catcher in the Rye. I remember how I felt when I first read The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Swimmer by John Cheever, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, and though those are very different stories, the feeling was about the same. Slightly unsettled and off-balance in the most delightful way.
This lifelong love of books, of reading and writing, started early. I know that sometime before preschool I “read” my mom a small, pink Care Bears book. Really, I must have been reciting from memory.
Elementary school was full of opportunities to read, and it was always my favorite activity next to drawing, painting, and pretending I was a tiger and stalking my dog or my older sister. I loved Tuesdays, which were library days when Mrs. Greene would read us stories by Bill Peet and Steven Kellogg and Shel Silverstein. We could also pick out books to read on our own (one of my favorites was a pitiful story called A Dog Named Kitty that I remember being quite heartwrenching—the dog dies, of course…I cried). I was involved for several years in Junior Great Books, a separate reading class that met in the library. I adored From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and The Trumpet of the Swan.
In fifth grade, I started reading young adult series, like Hank the Cow Dog, The Babysitters’ Club, and The Saddle Club, and sharing the experience with friends who were reading the same books. We talked far more about books than about any TV shows we might have been watching at the time. This was also the time I would begin to read books that would haunt me—books like Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes and Number the Stars. It was the time I realized the power a piece of fiction could have to captivate, horrify, and change you as a person.
I participated in the summer reading program at the Bay City library, filling the space behind my name with shiny gold stars for each of the books I read. One that would become a well-loved favorite was Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins. This is also when my love affair started with Watership Down, which I read at least once every year from fifth grade through college—sometimes twice. I have already read it twice to my own son.
When I entered junior high, my relationship with books got more complicated. For the first time, I had an English teacher I didn’t like. Seventh grade English was the first class in which I would decide not to read a required text. I was just so bored. And I wasn’t the only one. Eventually, some of disenfranchised high-achievers were allowed to leave class and work in the computer lab on special projects. I think the teacher was just trying to get us out of his hair while he taught everyone else The Red Pony and The Citadel, two books I despise but that perhaps I could have liked had I had a better teacher.
At the end of the year I said to my counselor, Charlie Brown (yes, that was his real name) “I didn’t learn anything in seventh grade English. Can I skip eighth grade English?” To my surprise he said yes. No testing, just “sure,” and on to high school English I went.
So, during eighth grade I walked over to the high school next door to take English 9, where we read Romeo & Juliet and Lord of the Flies. Because of this I missed out on some books everyone in my generation seems to have read—books like Where the Red Fern Grows, Sounder, Old Yeller, and Johnny Tremain—but I got ahead in my classes. And this was something that was starting to get very important to me.
In American Lit Honors the next year, I read poems by Emily Dickinson and Anne Bradstreet and Robert Frost, short stories by Ernest Hemingway and Shirley Jackson and Edgar Allan Poe, and sermons by Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. We read The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Sun Also Rises. It was in this class I developed a deep love for The Great Gatsby and a deep loathing for Bartleby the Scrivener. I also began a lifelong love affair with T. S. Eliot.
I took junior year English during my sophomore year, reading Beowulf and William Blake and Wuthering Heights and parts of The Canterbury Tales. Then my English requirements were done and I could choose whatever English classes I wanted. The next year I took Pop Lit and read things like The Martian Chronicles and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And Fantasy, in which I could have taught one of the texts—Watership Down—and was practically asked to do that by the teacher, who was an emergency transplant from the art department. This is also when I first read The Lord of the Rings. Senior year I took AP English, where we read things like Hamlet, Pride & Prejudice, the plays of Sophocles, A Doll’s House, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and The Handmaid’s Tale.
There were so many more books I read in high school: The Things They Carried, Catch-22, Animal Farm, The Scarlet Letter, Of Mice and Men, The Old Man and the Sea, The Call of the Wild, Cat’s Cradle, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Color Purple. Books that built me into the person I am today as surely as my own experiences have.
College would bring so many more and varied books and authors into my life. Elie Wiesel and Art Spiegelman. Chinua Achebe and Tayeb Salih. Toni Morrison and Richard Wright. And the years since have brought in countless others—Virginia Woolf, Anita Brookner, Annie Dillard, Bill Bryson, Tony Horwitz, C. S. Lewis.
I live my life in books and books live their lives in me—as they do in you when you read them. It is a marvelous, almost mystical communion, between author and reader. An author makes black marks on a white field with a pen or a typewriter or a computer. And somehow, even hundreds of years later, a reader draws meaning from them. And I’m so grateful that I get to be part of it on both sides of the cosmic telephone line.
To learn even more about my own reading habits, follow me on Goodreads.