I learned to read before I even went to Kindergarten. I think mother must have taught and encouraged me, one of the few times she did. I discovered very early that reading allowed me to escape from my life. We had a whole set of Oz books — maybe 20, they filled up a shelf anyway — and I used to read them over & over again. This appeared to set a pattern. I would find a series I liked and read it over & over. I think it must have comforted me that I could stay with the same characters for a long time. I also discovered, more recently, that if I tried to read something new I might have a hard time with it. Now I know that I was being triggered, but at the time, I only knew that familiar authors were safe. After the Oz books, I read the Narnia books, then Tolkien. Then I started reading Agatha Christie‘s mysteries. By 1980, I had all 66 books in paperback, and would go back to them when I was depressed.
I read the Diary of Anaïs Nin that first winter I came back to Maine. I started trying to write like she did. I eventually owned all of her journal that had been published. After she died, I read an autobiography and was disappointed to discover that what had been published were not the originals. I also read the journals of May Sarton, and of Virginia Woolf and Virginia Woolf’s letters. Eventually, I gave all these books to the local library.
Now I read Ellis Peters’ books about Brother Cadfael. He is the monk/herbalist/detective in her very fine murder mysteries, set in Shrewsbury, England, in the 12th century. Brother Cadfael is a monk in the Abbey of St Peter and St Paul. He is a wonderful character, and his take on God and human nature is quite refreshing and comforting. I remember a lot of times, when I was trying to imagine a safe place and there was no place in the world where I felt safe, I would imagine myself in the Abbey in the 12th century, and be comforted by the Benedictine round of chanting. I have all 20 books in paperback. Probably once a year I start with the first and read all the way through. Often I go on to Ellis Peters stories of a modern detective in a fictional town on the Welsh border.
I used to read mysteries by P.D.James and Elizabeth George. Both are fine writers, but there is too much pain in their books to keep reading them. At one point I wondered why I read mysteries, especially the essentially bloodless intellectual puzzles. I realized that in a good mystery, there is confusion at the beginning and order at the end. I have to have a happy ending, or at least one that is satisfying in some way.
I also read Deborah Crombie’s books about Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James. I enjoy the fact that their relationship keeps evolving, and that Crombie has also meticulously researched some place or some business — like a whiskey distillery in Scotland, or the canals in Cheshire. I read that series over & over, and notice that Crombie has improved greatly since the first one.
I have recently discovered Jacqueline Winspear, and her stories of Maisie Dobbs in a post-World War One London. She knows a lot about PTSD, and describes it very well and sympathetically, but she also describes the attitude of the times. It was called “shell shock,” and was thought to be laziness or cowardice. I have enjoyed watching Maisie grow through the series.
Another author whose books have been very important to me is Elizabeth Goudge. I’ve already done a blog post about her. I usually go back and read her when I’m doing very badly. I don’t read in series, but whichever book appeals most to me.
I’m very lucky that my “drug of choice” is reading. Yes, I have been seen reading the cereal box when desperate. Now I use it more consciously. The capacity to tune out the world helped me to be a good student.