by Jennifer on February 12, 2009

(This post first appeared almost exactly a year ago.  I’m hoping you won’t mind if I dust it off.)


Last night, I spent some time looking through the files on my computer, hoping to stumble across something that would inspire me to write a post. Maybe a scrap of prose that never quite found a home, or a photo that would cast its line, heavy with bait, and pull an old story from the bottom of my soul. No such luck.

Then I looked at the stack of books on my desk.  You know, I forget it sometimes, but a stack of books sitting on my desk or beside my bed – especially works of fiction – is nothing less than a treasure, wrapped in the echo of a personal revolution.

There was a time when it would have been an impossibility. I can explain.

If you’ve been reading this blog for very long, you may have come to understand that I was raised by a difficult (let’s embrace the euphemism) woman who was not my mother.

The memory that these books brought to mind was of our rare trips to the public library. I can think of only a handful of visits, certainly no more than five. Our stepmother would walk in with the three of us, and though we were allowed to browse among the shelves, she would remind us that we weren’t allowed to look through the fiction section. At home, there was a selection of religious fiction that she encouraged us to read – books with a clear moral stance and a message. But here, with shelves stacked high and long with stories? Fiction was off-limits. I remember having the general sense that she thought mainstream fiction might corrupt us somehow.

Maybe it was too much work for her to help us find age-appropriate stories? Maybe the idea that we would read something and have questions about it was exhausting to her.

I have a feeling she didn’t want us to know just how big the world was, outside of our house and our church and our small circle of friends. Beyond her reach.

I knew this, even then.

As her daughter, I felt like a lump of clay, malleable, and no bigger than an egg or a small stone. Never bigger than something that she could hold in the palm of her hand. I believe she wanted our lives to remain small, and god knows she may have needed that, too. Did small equal manageable? The things she struggled with, who knew what they were? The answers were beyond us, the soft pads of clay.

She wanted something more for herself than the life she had, I know that much. But I don’t know that she ever wanted more for us, as most parents do for their children.

Books became important to me as soon as I reached high school. How could she argue with required reading? Not only was I supposed to read these books, I was required to think about them and present my ideas (stale as they may have been in high school) about them. I fell in love with stories, and with the hope that one day I could write my own.

So, back to this stack of books next to me. They are mine. I bought them all, and they will be part of my personal library for the rest of my life. Right now, most of my books are packed in boxes, awaiting our move. I miss them. And I continue to buy more, and pack those away, too, after I read them. I am eager for the day when I will unpack them all and arrange them on shelves once again. Maybe by author, maybe by category. Biography. Non-fiction. Poetry. And, yes, fiction, the largest group.

They are mine, and each of them is like a window. I need them around me, to let in light. And darkness, too. Who doesn’t need both light and darkness?

They are windows. Through them, I see the world, and it is big.


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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Smalltown Mom February 12, 2009 at 10:03 pm

I only recently started reading your blog, so please…dust away.

Books have always been my best friends. I can’t imagine being forbidden to read.

anymommy February 12, 2009 at 10:12 pm

I adore books, and your posts too.

Madge February 13, 2009 at 4:08 am

you know it was the same thing for me — as far as my mom and fiction. she still doesn’t understand. i think she is terrified of anything past her very small world.

V-Grrrl February 13, 2009 at 5:08 am

I grew up in a large family and my mother cared for her invalid mother in our home. We never went anywhere other than church on Sunday. My father did all the grocery shopping. My mother ordered our clothes from Sears and had them delivered. We lived in NY and never went to museums or cultural events or community events. We socialized with relatives who lived in our own neighborhood. I didn’t get to participate in ANY extracurricular activity until high school.


My father took me to the library. From the time I was really small. In order to get a library card, you had to be able to sign (not print) your name, and he taught me to write my name in cursive when I was only five so I could have my own card. I was allowed to check out anything and everything. Money was tight but my parents always found a bit to allow me to order from the Scholastic Book Club flyer and my parents purchased books for themselves.

So for all the experiences I didn’t have, I at least had that freedom. My next oldest brother and I have writing-related degrees (mine in communications, his an MFA in creative writing) and both of us have worked as writers all our professional lives…And we both live in houses with built in bookcases from floor to ceiling–all overflowing.

natalie February 13, 2009 at 6:02 am

my mom took us to the library a handful of times when i was young. she had 4 small children and suffered from mild depression, but she always encouraged reading. once we were in school she let the school library take care of our book needs. when we moved to houston the local library sent a mobile library to our neighborhood twice a month. i loved it! books…love them still. moving back from turkey was somewhat of a challenge. we gave quite a few books away, but i still had to bring back some of my favorites. i knew i could buy them again once i got here, but i just couldn’t bear to leave any behind!

speaking of books i’m giving away a book on my blog. stop by if you’re interested!

jenrantsraves February 13, 2009 at 7:27 am

I am sure that your kids will take many trips to the library and that they will develop a love for all types of books! I hope you get to see your name on the cover of one someday!

jessica February 13, 2009 at 9:42 am

My dad and I were never close and one of the literal few good memories i have of him is when he took me to the library. For those brief moments I actually felt like he loved me and I was really daddy’s litle girl.

Green Girl February 13, 2009 at 11:42 am

I think there are many kids saved by libraries and books. I enjoyed this piece so much.

JCK February 13, 2009 at 4:58 pm

I remember this from last year, and enjoyed reading it again. Just popped into the library this morning with my children. We’re regulars. Nothing like books, and such a gift to be able to read.

fancy feet February 13, 2009 at 5:39 pm

I remember loving books from a young age and would often not go out to play so I could read.

Beautiful post. I love the idea of books being windows.

Ann February 13, 2009 at 6:02 pm

I really love having books our little library – love bookshelves. So comforting. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get on board with the digital book…

Momisodes February 13, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Your children will be so fortunate to have these windows around them as well. Beautifully said.

Jenn @ Juggling Life February 13, 2009 at 9:10 pm

The thought of not being able to read fiction took my breath away. I spent 3 hours after school every day at the public library four blocks from my home. It was my oasis.

flutter February 13, 2009 at 11:06 pm

beautiful, jenn

Indigo February 14, 2009 at 4:59 pm

I believe my mother/your stepmother might of been of the same think group. Mine thought the Bible was more than enough reading material to get through life. I remember coming home with poetry I had written on the wind gently bending the blades of grass. I had made myself the blade of grass and described the torment the wind entrenched on me. My English teacher was impressed and likened it to Robert Frost. Not thinking I rushed home and showed my mother the grade and compliments written in red ink for all the world to see. I was so overjoyed something I had written had been welcomed so enthusiastically by my teacher. My mother read the poem quietly and when she finished looked right at me and proceeded to shred the paper into small pieces and tell me I would no longer bring that filth into the house. Like I said anything outside of the Bible was the devils making, including my own words. Needless to say I grew up to crave books, words are like gifts to me. (Hugs)Indigo

Kimberly February 16, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Lovely post – as usual.

Louise February 18, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Your seeing a bigger world was a threat to her. I wonder what she thought would happen when you grew up and left. Well, I guess nothing too terrible has happened to her, so maybe her preservation of her own insane way of life worked.

Just glad that none of us have to participate in it.

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