Monday, November 8, 2010

The Beginnings of an Illicit Habit

I’ve been thinking of the consequences of a writer growing up in a house without books. Nary a dictionary nor an encyclopedia, not even a newspaper in sight. My parents were literate in their native language (Italian) and moved smoothly from Sicilian dialect to Italian in speech. They spoke English well, having been here since the early to mid 50s and both owning their own businesses through which they learned their adopted language. They wrote in Italian as well. They valued education a great deal.

But…they had no interest in reading whatsoever. I inferred, although it was never specifically stated, that the habit of reading in others was a considered a wasteful (and puzzling) enterprise.

I came to reading later, much later, than most perhaps for someone who is now a voracious reader - the type who always has a book in her hand, who reads while walking (odd I know), who gives herself a minimum number of pages to read per day, who keeps a book diary of all that she has read for, oh, the last few decades. The type who thinks planning a vacation around visiting Jane Austen's house in Bath would be fascinating. You know...obsessively nerdy about books and literature.

This obsession began in my late teens and, I now think, was as a result of not wanting to deal with certain people or situations. I was the typical sullen, unhappy teenager. I was often chastised by my mother when “caught” with a book in my bedroom reading. From her reaction, you'd think that I had been caught with a bag of weed or a condom.

To be fair, my mother was dealing with her own many griefs and frustrations then.

There was work to be done! Why wasn’t I sweeping or cleaning up or getting ready for the numerous responsibilities of the family business (this involved maintaining two vendors' stalls at the Farmers Market in Hamilton where I grew up and in St. Catherines as well).

It was an all consuming family enterprise and everyone had their specific duties and chores which were numerous and varied: loading and unloading the truck every work day (four times a week), cleaning up the shelves of the truck after a day's work; packing olives into little one pound bags each Friday night for the next day's work; preparing trays for special orders. It made for a gruelling work day.

With my nose stuck in a book did that not scream – leave me alone I’m reading! I read at work, between serving customers, while standing behind the stall (don’t read - it looks like you’re not ready to serve people!). I read at home (don’t you have something to do?). I consumed everything I could get my hands on: school related texts, trashy magazines, feminist texts, books by Simone de Beauvoir, the classics...

So I drifted into reading and fell in love with Gatsby and Daisy. Lizzie and Darcy. Anna and Vronsky. Becky Sharpe. Fully expecting them all to love me back.

First published in an altered form by, January 31, 2007.


Christine said...

I grew up in house that revered the newspaper above all. We also had news magazines. The family joke used to be that I read the paper cover to cover from the age of seven. My parents did not read books either.

Michelle said...

Well, it's odd because they were so respectful about education but, yes, reading for pleasure was seen as a waste of time!