Posted by: J. Thomas Ross | March 31, 2015

Stages in the Reading Life

Life goes through stages. These stages are most evident in children because children pass through the various stages as quickly as they outgrow their clothes. Every parent has experienced the taste-testing stage, when babies must put everything into their mouths to check its taste, and the nonstop-negative stage, when a child’s answer to every question is “no.”

Adults pass through stages too, although these stages or phases of life last longer, may vary more from person to person, and often have less obvious beginnings and endings. We face each new stage with a combination of excitement and anxiety, for whatever preparations we may make and whatever dreams we may create, adults know the future remains uncertain. Thus, as we pass from stage to stage, we often take time to reflect on the past while we sketch out our futures, with the hope of ensuring that our futures will unfold according to plan.

Now that my husband and I have both retired, we have entered a new stage in our lives. Our perspective has changed, and we both recognize that – with only one grown son remaining at home (but not for the long haul) – our four-bedroom house with its oversize yard will soon require more time and work than we will be willing to expend. Like many retirees, we plan to downsize in a few years. Since, like most homeowners, we have accumulated a horde of possessions – things bought or given to us or inherited from family members over the years – we face the difficult task of clearing out both clutter and prized items that a smaller dwelling will be unable to hold.

One of the bookshelves I've started clearing off. I have a long way to go!

One of the bookshelves I’ve started clearing off. I have a long way to go!

One of the tasks I’ve recently tackled is a gradual sorting out of the scores of books on our bookshelves. Most of the books are mine, and the paperbacks are packed two deep. I’ve done a lot of thinking about reading as I go through these books, carefully dusting and sorting. Since I’ve acquired them bit by bit over many years, until I started this task I had no real grasp of just how many books I owned (and have even less of an inkling how many I’ve read, for I gave away books I liked too little to keep and borrowed many books from the library — my husband reminds me each time I buy a book that borrowing library books costs nothing).

While sorting and boxing up books to donate to Goodwill, I’ve rediscovered favorite authors and much-loved books read long ago. In spite of my hefty stack of books-to-be-read, I’ve been rereading some of these long-buried treasures. In the past six months I’ve reread more than forty books by Andre Norton – all except her Witch World series (because I haven’t yet unearthed the first one), and I just finished The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and enchanting fantasy by Patricia A. McKillip. These are books I will keep, not only because I love the stories but because these women represent some of the first successful women science fiction and fantasy writers and they did not shy from using women as protagonists.

In addition to revealing long-lost reading treasures, the task of downsizing my bookshelves has prompted me to think about my reading habits. Reading has had great importance for me since I first discovered books as a child, and as I considered that importance, I realized that my reading (my personal, not my required, reading) has passed through stages as well.

When I began reading as a child, I read every book that came my way regardless of subject. Reading itself delighted me because it transported me to other places and experiences and set dreams spinning through my mind. As I progressed through elementary school, my book choices narrowed to predominantly books about horses, dogs, and other animals. In junior high school, I preferred novels about students my age or older and the trials they faced and overcame. I also enjoyed biographies, written for students my age, about inspiring, well-known people.

In high school my reading preference took a dramatic shift to horror and war. I read every classic and current horror novel and anthology and every novel and personal account of World War II experiences I could find in the school library. I also expanded into science fiction and fantasy, with an occasional foray into mystery and gothic romance. This is when, with the help of Scholastic Book Club, I began my personal book collection.

During my college years, I concentrated on history, historical novels, and historical romance, although I also continued reading science fiction and fantasy. For most of my years as a high school teacher, my personal reading became an escape from the stresses of work and raising a family and I veered away from classics and literary fiction. My preferences converged to a few alternating genres. I would read mainly historical romance for a few years, switch to fantasy or science fiction for a time, and then back again, with an occasional mystery or non-fiction account thrown in for variety. More recently, I’ve added books about writing to the mix as well as young adult books, current-day and future cross-genre romances written by Nora Roberts, and books written by authors I know personally (and am not naming for fear of leaving someone out).

As you can see, my reading life has gone through numerous stages of reading books predominantly in one genre or by one author. I haven’t heard anyone else mention going through such stages, which has me wondering whether other people have had this experience.

So, I’m asking now – have you gone through stages in your reading life? Please share your experiences in the comments. I’d really like to know.

Morning snow on March 30 -- good bookshelf clearing weather.

Morning snow on March 30 — good bookshelf clearing weather.

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