The Magic and Wonder of Reading

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This passage in Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby is so apropos for me and many of the writers I know. And it speaks of the delight of meeting fellow readers–even readers of our books–in person, online, in letters. We readers share wonder–Have you read…? Didn’t you love…? Who’s your favorite character in…? Wouldn’t you love to step through that door and discover…? We learn so much from each other by knowing what we’ve read and loved.

“Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation, and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

“These vanishing acts are a staple of children’s books, which often tell of adventures that are magical because they travel between levels and kinds of reality, and the crossing over is often an initiation into power and into responsibility. They are in a sense allegories first for the act of reading, of entering an imaginary world, and then of the way that the world we actually inhabit is made up of stories, images, collective beliefs, all the immaterial appurtenances we call ideology and culture, the pictures we wander in and out of all the time. In children’s books there are inanimate objects that come to life, speaking statues, rings and words of power, talismans and amulets, and most of all, there are doors….”

These wonder-filled stories gave us the courage to be who we are, didn’t they? I loved E Nesbit–The Story of the Treasure Seekers, The Phoenix and the Carpet, The Five Children and It, Mary Norton’s Bednob and Broomstick, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (so much that I wrote her a fan letter), Marchette Chute’s The Innocent Wayfaring, fairy tales of all sorts. Well, that’s a start. What were some of your favorite children’s books?

5 Comments on “The Magic and Wonder of Reading

  1. Such a lovely post, Candace. My favorite sentence: Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

    My favorite books as a child: #1:The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. It would be 50 years before I fulfilled my yearning to see the moors of Yorkshire. Rose in Bloom by Louisa Alcott, Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss, all of Margaret Sidney’s Five Little Peppers books. My mother was forced to snatch the book from my hands and thrust me out of doors.

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    • I forgot about The Secret Garden–oh, yes. But I do believe I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights before I read TSG, so I was already enthralled by the idea of the moors before ever encountering Burnett’s book. My mother did not appreciate that I smuggled library books in my swimming bag–in summer they always smelled of chlorine and sun screen when I returned them.

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  2. A marvelous passage. Thank you for sharing this. It captures so much about the writing life (before and after we discovered we could, indeed, write books as well as read them)! I remember reading and loving certain stories, especially Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief”! My childhood favorites had animals, kids, and any place or time outside of my own experience. When I was in eighth grade, I read Estelle Friedman’s Digging into Yesterday about 8 times that year. My favorite stories in that book were about the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the sacrificial well of the Mayan rain god! I wanted to be an archaeologist for most of my childhood years, but my love of literature and history won out. I am now a textual archaeologist! Thank you for this wonderful post.

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  3. Oh my goodness, your article makes me feel foolish for never having noticed the allegory in writing is reading! You are so insightful! My favorite Edith Nesbit book is “The Railway Children”. I think “Narnia”, “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” have to take the top spots on my list. I also love the children’s version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress” called “Dangerous Journey”.

    I love Frances Hodgson Burnett as well-especially “A Little Princess”. I had only seen the movie as a child, but it captivated me. Especially the scene where Ram Dass prepares a banquet for Sarah and Becky. As a little girl, I just remember his compassion stood out to me. I love her other books as well.

    The Laura Ingalls books stand out to me too (and the books about her daughter by Roger Lea MacBride). There are so many, it’s hard to narrow it down: “The Wind in the Willows”, “Heidi”, “Adam of the Road”, “Snow Treasure”, “The Hundred Dresses”, “Billy and Blaze”, James Herriot’s children’s books, “Charlotte’s Web”, “The Borrowers”, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “King Arthur”, “Robin Hood”, “Treasure Island”, “Captains Courageous”, “Carry On, Mr. Bowditch”, “Dr. Doolittle”, “Pippi Longstocking”, “Anne of Green Gables”, “Little Women”…and I’m still catching up on so many I missed and modern classics like “Redwall”, by reading with my own children.

    I loved “A Wrinkle in Time” as well. I felt M. L’Engle really understood the core of God. Thank you for letting me share these fond memories.

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