“I guess it’s no surprise that I grew up to be a book reviewer for several national magazines (for two decades, I mostly reviewed parenting and self-help books). But the best books for me, as a parent, were not by Dr. Spock or the popular ‘attachment parenting’ guru Dr. Sears. The best books were by Fay Weldon, Margaret Drabble, and of course Jane Austen. Those books saved my life (though Spock and Sears may have saved my children’s lives a few times). With three omnipresent squabbling sons there was no place to escape except into a book.”—Kathryn E. Livingston
Words & Wonder
By Kathryn E. Livingston
ARLES France—(Hubris)—1 June 2023—Back in the day, my parents didn’t tell me what to read. They said, “Get on your bike, and ride down to the library.” I always came back with a basketful, and my childhood choices ran the gamut from Little House on the Prairie, Nancy Drew mysteries, and Little Women to the occasional Archie comic. Only once—when I was a teen—did my father dare to tell me I could not read a particular novel. I clearly recall that the book was The Godfather, but I’m not sure why it was forbidden. Doesn’t matter anyway, because I totally ignored him, secretly read the book, and later saw the movie. My father’s proclamation against The Godfather served only to ensure that read it I would.
So much for the “logic” of book banning. (Book banners would find more success by giving children a list of mandatory books, including the banned Beloved or To Kill a Mockingbird. Kids would then surely find other books to read.)
My father never tried book banning again. There were no more proclamations, but we’d often discuss my selections. My mother was partial to Maeve Binchy and those tedious but charming Mitford books (we both read them all). Dad liked Longfellow and the Congressional Record. In college, I read all the required books for an English major (in love forever with Jane Austen and the Brontës), as well as a full semester of D.H. Lawrence (nothing was said—my dad surely never read him), Shakespeare, and Chaucer. And no comments were made when I spent a college summer on Hemingway while drinking a ton of gin and tonics along with Thomas Hudson, the tortured protagonist of Islands in the Stream.
I guess it’s no surprise that I grew up to be a book reviewer for several national magazines (for two decades, I mostly reviewed parenting and self-help books). But the best books for me, as a parent, were not by Dr. Spock or the popular “attachment parenting” guru Dr. Sears. The best books were by Fay Weldon, Margaret Drabble, and of course Jane Austen. Those books saved my life (though Spock and Sears may have saved my children’s lives a few times). With three omnipresent squabbling sons there was no place to escape except into a book. So, on the occasions when I could park them in front of a video, or send them outside to play, a book was this mother’s helper. (When my boys became men, one gifted me novelty socks stenciled “Fuck Off, I’m Reading.”) I needn’t wonder why.
Though no longer a reviewer, I still read a lot of books—like many word addicts, I often have at least three going at a time. I belong to a book club—previously I belonged to two—and though I don’t like people telling me what to read, I’ll admit following others’ choices sometimes opens doorways I might otherwise have missed. Still, most of the books I really love, I’ve found on my own. My tastes vary from Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander tome to George Eliot’s Middlemarch. A big, fat, chunky book doesn’t scare me at all. Bring it on. But I’m not overly fond of Dostoevsky.
I have a dear friend—a brilliant math PhD—who often asks me if I’ve read anything good lately. I have to admit I’m sometimes embarrassed to share.
But one day he owned up to the fact that he’s never read Austen. Reader, I gasped.
After all, I had diligently plodded through The Brothers Karamazov at his suggestion. He’s definitely getting a copy of Pride and Prejudice next Christmas (and maybe Elin Hildebrand’s new beach read, too).
Books are my bedfellows. They can also be found on my phone, on my iPad, in my purse, on my coffee table, in my bath, and in various other places. They come everywhere with me. And should anyone ever tell me I could not have them, I simply don’t know what I would do. I feel for the school children who can’t find books on their library shelves anymore because some misguided and fearful adults have ruled that the pages that might open their hearts and minds must be deleted.
In preparing for a recent trip to France I was more concerned about what books to bring than whether I had to pack my mascara in my transparent baggie (TSA says yes). I needed something extremely light for the plane (due to airplane anxiety), but something contemplative for sitting on deck on the Rhone. I also needed a few paperbacks as well as books on my phone via my library app. For days, I obsessed over which books to pack.
“I for one am not going to be reading. I’m going to be in the moment, experiencing my surroundings,” my husband Mitch scolded.
“I for one enjoy being in the moment, experiencing my surroundings while reading a book.”
I cruised on the Rhone with Austen’s Persuasion, and I don’t regret reading a word of it as the breeze caressed my cheeks and the swans glided by. Admittedly, I didn’t get a lot of reading done on the trip, but when I needed my mates, they were there for me.
I came home with a rich suggested reading list from literary fellow travelers, but I do have boundaries: To wit, please do not tell me what to read unless I ask, do not tell me when to read, and please, do not interrupt my reading. Above all, please do not tell me what NOT to read, even with the pitiful excuse that it may not be good for me. In fact, a book that is not good for me may teach more than one that is. At the suggestion of a neighbor, for instance, I once read a Stephen King novel, from which I learned never, ever to read a horror book again. Had that book been banned, I might have one day read something even more frightening, possibly leading to even more nightmares and fear. From reading a scary book I learned that scary books are not for me (nor are such films—I’ve never recovered from “Night of the Living Dead”).
I’m for reading free choice (with a few exceptions for preschoolers, perhaps). After all, quite early on and without parental consent, I read all my brother-in-law’s Playboys, as well as a number of explicitly illustrated medical journals that belonged to my best friend’s dad (our family doctor). No harm done, and neither thwarted my eventual gig as a book reviewer—in fact, my early exposure may have enhanced my ability to discern the difference between fiction and fact.