I am a book lover, pure and simple. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t smitten by the pleasures of reading or comforted by the presence of books. When I walk around our house, I see the history of our interests in the titles that line the shelves. I can’t imagine how empty life would be without the company of those books, and I’m continually grateful for how rich it’s been because of them. We have valued books, Chuck and I, and after 44 years of marriage, they surround us. We trimmed the fat when we moved here four years ago, carting boxes of books to Goodwill. But then we kept on living and being curious, wanting to read the next thing. Chuck reads a lot on Kindle, so that helps the storage issue. I tried, but I couldn’t keep it up. I read everything with a pen in my hand, fiction or non-fiction, underlining sentences and marking whole paragraphs. When I need to find those words again, I’m glad for the ease of locating the physical book and flipping through its pages. But also, I just like having them around. Life feels infinitely more interesting with books in the room.
The first thing that drew me to our new house was the office and its wall of built-in bookshelves. When we walked in the front door to look at the place, there it was, second room on the right. I claimed it for myself immediately. When I enter this room in the morning and turn right, I’m confronted with work and messy to-do piles spread across my long desk. But if I look to the left and peruse for a moment, I’m calmed. I see the books that matter most to me, the novels and memoirs, the books that strengthened my faith and taught me about vocation, the food writing I love. I see poetry, Bible commentaries, books on the writing life, and whole sections by Marilyn Robinson, Wendell Berry, Eugene Peterson, C.S. Lewis, and Elizabeth Goudge. And, of course, there are all my favorite Anns, with or without the “e”: Ann Patchett, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Anne Tyler.
The kitchen holds shelves full of cookbooks. The living room has biography and history. Upstairs, our beloved friend, the late Richard Kapuga, built beautiful floor-to-ceiling shelves to house the remainder of our library. They contain a large music section, books on business, fine arts, creativity, women’s studies, health, theology, Church history, psychology, education, family, and travel. Down the hall to the left, there’s a cozy reading nook with a grandchildren’s library, the sweetest room in the house.
I still remember the thrill of learning to read when I was someone’s grandchild. Once everything clicked, and the letters settled into words and sentences, I felt the power of it. From that moment on, whatever had been undecipherable became knowable: street signs, birthday cards, the back of the Frosted Flakes box, and books, glorious books.
My mother and grandmother took me to the library regularly. I loved anticipating the hunt and digging into each new batch of books. I read after school, in the summer, in the thick branch of an almond tree in the corner of our front yard. At my grandmother’s house, in a room surrounded by stacks of National Geographics and piles of extra fabric, I read my way through Louisa May Alcott’s novels. My friend, Courtenay, and I were sharing our book memories and how strongly they’re tied to places, trips, other people, and illness. I read one Nancy Drew mystery after another while traveling to Mexico with my sister and paternal grandparents. Courtenay read the entire Anne of Green Gables series in the Arkansas heat of her family’s sleeping porch. She was 13 years old, sick with a virus, and happily lost in the adventures of Anne Shirley.
Chuck and I had reading in common when we met in high school. On Valentines Day, three months before our wedding, he gave me a thick Joyce Carol Oates novel. His penciled inscription is still fresh and readable:
For St. Valentine and You. Standing in front of books, and really it doesn’t seem unusual at all. I’m a mole, and I’ve scrounged for loose pennies in light pockets. I thought, ‘Gee whiz, Chuck, you’re really in a jam aren’t you?’ In the clouded light of the bookstore, I stood in front of a long table covered with hardbacks priced 50% off. I picked one up and whistled Dixie and thought about you, Honey. I knew I was growing and becoming what I want to be, so I called myself a writer, and it sounded nice, and I called you my friend. I had to ignore the biggest cliché of all because it still means something beautiful to me.
I love you,
In our first house on Rubel St. in Marysville, California we turned an orange crate on its side to create a bookcase and started our library. We grew a small row, one book at a time: Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and Watermelon Sugar, Kurt Vonnegut novels, Allan Watts, the Tao Te Ching, and books from the feminist bookstores in Sacramento and Oakland. After moving to Sacramento, we rode our bikes to Beers New and Used Books and expanded our collection, making purchases with the spare change lying around our apartment.
In 1982 my reading life expanded in waves as I began to sit in a frayed, hand-me-down rocking chair with an open Bible, reading earnestly. As my faith matured, I grew more curious and hungrier to learn than I’d ever been. I wanted to study the Bible deeply and carefully, and I wanted to read wherever my broadening interests took me. Becoming a woman of the Word meant becoming a woman of words. I learned soon enough that this is my Father’s world, and because of that, everything matters, not only the life of the Church but the whole of creation. My interests would narrow through the realities of my vocation, my place, and the people I cared about up close. But I would learn about the complexities of human life and relationships, other countries and cultures, through books. Beautifully written fiction and memoir, in particular, would help me imagine a life other than my own, creating more empathy and understanding than my limited experience could tell me.
One summer we left our kids with their grandparents while Chuck and I flew to England. He played the Greenbelt Festival on the grounds of Castle Ashby, and then we spent a week riding trains around Europe with Mary and Julissa Neely. As we touched down again on U.S. soil, Mary left her copy of Brideshead Revisited in the seat pocket of the airplane. She told me to take it if I wanted to. She was catching up on classics she’d missed and was finished with that one. I’ve still never read the book, but that moment was a turning point for me. I knew I was missing a lot in my literary education and was inspired to fill in the gaps. I went to the library a few days later and checked out a copy of Jane Eyre. I read while I waited for the kids at baseball practice, piano lessons, and drum lessons. I was captured by the beauty of words and story and moved on to Dickens, Jane Austen, Les Miserables, and The Scarlet Letter. Book after book after book, reading in the last half hour before the kids came home from school, and later when we all went to bed.
In the early 90s after moving to Nashville, I was invited to join a book group, and eventually another. For a while, I went to both. It was a gift to be with women who valued reading. I loved listening to their book-inspired conversations. I was shyer in those days, less likely to speak up in a group, but I was learning, stretched by the reading selections of classic and modern literature. I remember trying hard to finish The Brothers Karamazov on time, and reading The Phantom of the Opera just to say we’d read it.
By the time our kids were teenagers, we were living in the Art House juggling self-employment, hosting, and family needs. To carve out space for myself, I had Friday night coffee parties. I was the only guest. If the kids were out with friends and Chuck was in the studio, I drank coffee for the caffeine boost and read to my heart’s delight. I can see myself at the kitchen table, reading Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gifts from the Seaand copying significant passages in my journal. Another Friday, I read Like Water for Chocolate in one large gulp, finishing at midnight. The next time, it was Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady.
I looked forward to those evenings with the giddiness of a much-anticipated date, using the time to write letters and update my journal, as well. Those lovely hours fed me as a reader and a writer. I didn’t know the writer in me would ever develop beyond my journals. I was just doing what I loved, creating space to nourish something in me that felt as necessary as breathing.
There are so many books whose stories are inside me even though I don’t remember them clearly anymore. Their Eyes Were Watching Godby Zora Neal Hurston. Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. It’s impossible to hold a fresh memory of books read years ago, but their impact remains with me. And sometimes you just have to read a book more than once. I’ve read Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter twice and will likely read it a third time if I can. It’s that beautiful and that wise.
Over the past year, I’ve had the absolute joy of being in a book group again. Last spring I ran into a writer friend, Claire Gibson, at an Art House gathering. As we caught up, we talked about what we’d been reading, and before we parted she said, “Let’s start a book group together!” Little did I know she was already in a book group and this would be her second, and little did she know I’d been longing to be in a group since my early years in Nashville, but the timing was never right. Now it was perfect.
In August, we launched the group at my house with some of Claire’s friends, some of mine, and some we already shared in common. It’s a lovely mix of women ranging from thirty-something to sixty-something. Claire brought wine and made delicious homemade chocolate pies. I made a cheese platter with prosciutto, figs, cherries, and grapes, Cheese Straws and Rosemary Roasted Cashews from Ina Garten’s recipes, and my daughter-in-law Ruby’s warm marinated olives (olive oil, fresh orange juice and zest, rosemary, and garlic). They are amazing.
We introduced ourselves through our early history with books, the ones that made us love reading, and then we discussed our kick-off book, Tara Westover’s gripping memoir Educated. Since our first gathering last summer, this group has become an important part of my life. Each time we get together we come to know each other a little more deeply and have another great book to talk about. If you’re looking for some good summer reading, I recommend A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, Lila by Marilyn Robinson, Virgil Wanderby Leif Enger, Michelle Obama’s memoir Becoming, and our own Claire Gibson’s newly published novel, Beyond the Point.
This July will be our thirtieth year in Nashville, a city that’s growing faster than its structure can possibly keep up with. We’re getting crowded and our traffic is annoying, but the warmth and heart of this place is as strong as ever. The same kindness that prompted one of my first Nashville friends, Debbie Bannister, to give me Brenda Ueland’s So You Want to Write is alive and well. And the welcoming spirit that got me invited to those first book groups will always be around. We are still a music city, but we are also a city of painters, cooks, non-profits, writers, and much more. We are a literary city, thanks in part to novelist Ann Patchett and her business partner, Karen Hayes, who gave us the independent bookstore, Parnassus Books. When other large bookstores were closing down, they came to our rescue. We now have a wonderful place to browse and a beautiful parade of visiting authors and book signings, a bookish person’s delight. I’m grateful to have the longtime, faithful presence of Logos Bookstore, and now Parnassus, all within walking distance of my neighborhood.
In the last several months, I’ve attended the packed house, Nashville book launch for two of my author friends: Kristin Russell and Claire Gibson. Kristin’s YA novel, A Sky For Us Alone, is a powerful story of first love, poverty, and the grip of the opioid crisis in the rural South. And Claire’s book, Beyond The Point, is the story of three women whose friendships begin at West Point Military Academy. Claire describes the book as a sort of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants meets Zero Dark Thirty. I’m reading it right now and can’t put it down. Kristin’s book is still in my queue, but I’ve read the first few pages and can’t wait to dig in. I’m so proud of them both.
I know the labor of writing, and I bless those who give their lives to it. I bless those throughout history who’ve been compelled to research, to follow a character in their imagination, to craft poetry or write non-fiction books about every topic under the sun. I honor those who sit for days and years writing and rewriting because it’s who they are. I’m grateful for the faithfulness of writers whose books fill my shelves, whose work has taught me, shaped me, and given me so much joy.
This past year as I’ve searched for new book titles, I’ve discovered some online spaces I’m grateful to know about. I hope you find them fun and helpful.
https://modernmrsdarcy.com is Anne Bogel’s blog. It’s mostly about books, and links to her podcast “What Should I Read Next?”
BBC World Book Club – The world’s great authors discuss their best-known novels.
A Word on Words is a series of 3-minute programs on books and literary topics.
Moms Who Don’t Have Time to Read Books – Interviews with writers about their work.
Book Notes – Byron Borger, co-owner of Hearts and Minds Books in Pennsylvania, is a true book lover. He writes thoughtful reviews on a wide range of books.
I just came across this piece and loved it. Twelve Rules for the Bookish Life by Doug Sikkema.