House of Stories

9780452298156_medium_Why_We_WriteOne of the themes that keeps coming up while reading this book are the number of writers who grew up surrounded by books and/or storytellers:

Sara Gruen:  My parents had an extensive library, and as a kid I worked my way through it, picking the next book off the shelf when I was done with the last.  I read everything from Alexander Pope to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Jane Smiley:  Almost all novelists grew up reading voraciously, and many of them come from families in which it’s automatic to tell stories about family characters.


In that vein, my husband and I were talking about the houses we grew up in.  His father recently told him he’s never read a single book; his mother has only read a few, and those were mostly about the area of the country she lives in, the locals.  My relatives weren’t readers, either.  My mother read a few romance novels late in her life, once she was homebound, but that’s it.  My grandmother was obsessed with all things Dracula and vampires (she would have loved the current vampire craze!), and she loved to tell scary stories on the porch swing, but I only recall her reading the obituaries and her daily horoscope in town newspaper.

It occurs to me that one of the reasons I love audio books so much is because I’ve finally, in my 40’s, discovered the joy of being read to.  I especially like to be read to by a female voice, even if the story’s narrator is a man.

What was it is like to read Solzhenitsyn as a kid, because your dad left his book on the coffee table?  If you didn’t grow up with books, where and how did you find them?  Tell me your story.


44 thoughts on “House of Stories

  1. lisahgolden

    My father isn’t a reader – never was. My mother read off and on while we were growing up, but now that she’s retired, shes always reading. Sometimes we even talk about books and it makes me really happy because we finally have something in common.

    Like you, I’ve discovered the love of being read to. Audiobooks are wonderful companions.

    1. Teri Post author

      That’s a funny thing about audio books, isn’t it? And like a little kid might, I love to hear my favorite books over and over again.

  2. macdougalstreetbaby

    The only books I remember were my morher’s beloved Agatha Christie collection, which she read over and over again. The fact that I have only recently become a reader makes me wonder where my place is at the writer’s table.

    1. Teri Post author

      There’s no reason not to write. I love that it’s free, that unlike painting or playing an instrument, you don’t need anything but a pen and paper.

      1. macdougalstreetbaby

        You’re right, of course, but the creeping insecurity of being a novice who knows nothing, can’t help but rear its ugly head. Thank you. I will remind myself your words.

  3. Jennine G.

    My dad had to take Senior English in summer school to graduate h.s. and he laughs that I became an English teacher and says I didn’t get it from him. My mom, a smart, business type, says she always thought she was a reader until I hit school. She asked questions about what I read growing up, but she told me later she had to take my word about the books’ subjects because she couldn’t keep up with me on the reading or even interests in books. I have a feeling my mom would’ve been an avid reader if she had had books growing up. She grew up in a very broken home and area, the most they had laying around to read were the various adults’ inappropriate material. The first time she went to a friend’s house and saw books she was in awe that people could own books like that. But my parents have an appreciation for education and especially the value of reading, so the natural ability and interest was nurtured in me. That appreciation for education led me to be the first person on my mom’s side to attend and graduate college…first girl on my day’s side.

    1. Teri Post author

      What a gift that must be, to have parents who value reading and education. It has served you well, Jennine! How great they they knew, even with their lack of books, how important books and education are. My mother also grew up in not-so-great circumstances — it’s a wonder they went to school at all, really.

  4. Jennine G.

    As far as audio books, they are on the level of ereader for me…I don’t get to have the book on my shelf! But for me, it’s also a problem with comprehension. I really have trouble understanding what I’m reading unless I can read it off the page myself. Ironically, I read aloud to my kids very little when they were toddlers. I do better with it now, reading aloud to my students at times when we have to pull apart passages, but it was a challenge. I assumed it was because I spent so much time reading to myself growing upwind never aloud or listening to anyone read to me.

    1. Teri Post author

      I mostly listen to favorite books that I’ve already read. Audio books keep me company while I walk my dogs, and I have to say, there’s nothing like hearing Toni Morrison read BELOVED or Frank McCourt read ANGELA’S ASHES. Magical voices, telling their stories.

  5. Les

    Like maybe a lot of kids of our generation, television was my god; when I was a kid, if I wanted to know the time, the easiest, most efficient way for me was not to amble about the house looking for an analogue clock, but to simply turn on the TV to any of our 13 channels at any time of day or night, realize which program it was that was on (this took scant seconds to discern), and I immediately knew the time. Scary, huh?

    I didn’t start reading until high school, when good English teachers influenced how I looked at literature. Interesting you mention Solzhenitsyn because One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was one of the first books I’d picked up all on my own and discovered as revelatory.

    Anyway, I read in college, obviously; I was a lit major. And probably more than ever before in grad school because we had to. Part of reading now that’s difficult is not that I have all this time to read whatever I want, but that I don’t have any deadlines to meet!

    And I’m happy to report that, through my influence, my dad reads far more than he used to :).

    1. Teri Post author

      I read and watched TV religiously. Both. And I’m laughing about the TV/time thing because that was EXACTLY how I knew what time it was. We only had 3 channels.
      9 – 11 am – One Day at a Time, Alice, All in the Family, The Jeffersons
      11 am – Young and the Restless
      1 pm – As the Word Turns
      2 pm – Guiding Light
      3 – 4:30 pm – Gilligan’s Island, Brady Bunch, Partridge Family

      It wasn’t always thus, but this was the schedule for most of my middle school years. How sad that I know this, but honestly: I love these sitcoms still today. They’re like comfort food.

  6. Averil Dean

    My parents tag-teamed me on the reading front. When we were little, my mom read us all the Little Golden books, Dr. Seuss, etc, and when I got older my dad took over with Where the Red Fern Grows and Steinbeck and whatnot. Books have always been part of my life. And reading to my children was one of the greatest pleasures of motherhood. I could probably recite The Lorax start to finish, I’ve read it so often aloud.

    1. Teri Post author

      I’ve often realized that one of the things I would have loved, if I’d had a baby, would be bedtime stories. I’m looking forward to grandkids. I’m ready for their nighttimes, and probably daytimes, too….

  7. Paul Lamb

    We had books in my childhood house. And Saturday trips to the library were the norm. When my father remodeled a room and removed a double window, he put a bookcase in its place. He once expressed awe at the number of books I had read (and I think this was before I was in high school). In my house, there are — literally — books in every room, and that includes the bathrooms. For many years I gave my children books (along with whatever else) for birthday gifts. And if we were ever out shopping together and happened upon a bookstore, I told them I would get them anything and everything they wanted. Reading was just assumed among my family. A good life!

    1. Teri Post author

      This sounds so heavenly, I hardly know what to say. I love this, Paul, absolutely love every single word. Remove a window, add a bookcase — of course. “reading was just assumed among my family.” wow.

    2. Jennine G.

      Windows, books…one and the same. To quote Horace Mann, “A house without books is like a room without windows.” (I have books in every room of my house too, except the bathroom! Lol.)

      1. Teri Post author

        Our drugstore owner, Mr. Womack, used to let me read the comic books in the wire rack, without buying, as long as I was very careful with the pages. He was a saint, that man. And the librarian joked with me when I checked out books I shouldn’t, or too many books. She’d giggle and say, “Those are some big books for such a little girl,” and I’d feel like I owed it to her to finish them before the due date.

        It’s funny how the smallest things make the biggest differences.

  8. Pamela

    My mom was an avid reader. When I was about 13, I went to her bookshelf and pulled out her favorite book, “Look Homeward, Angel” by Thomas Wolfe and made a big display of the fact that I was reading it. I wanted her to think I was smart. I remember hitting page 134 and thinking, “Ah, finally, I’m starting to like this book!” Up to that point, it was a slog. The need to impress my mom kept me reading until I began to enjoy it on my own. She gave me that copy and it’s in tatters now, but it’s on my shelf.

    Mom read to me and my sister until we were around 9-10, things like “Cheaper By The Dozen.” She has the perfect voice for reading to children — sing-songy, emphatic, and theatrical.

    My crazy dad would send us long, bizarre poems in the mail, ones he had written himself. My sister and I would stand in the middle of the living room floor, clear our throats and do dramatic readings until we collapsed in a fit of giggles.

    1. Teri Post author

      That you collapsed in a fit of giggles after performing your “crazy father’s” poetry makes my heart all happy. Love that image.

  9. girl in the hat

    Your grandmother sounds fabulous.

    Yes, I couldn’t stop reading. I remember once (once) a friend invited me to go skiing with her family for the weekend and I brought a new book and, at one point I remember hearing her complain to her mother in the other room that I wouldn’t put the book down. And still I couldn’t.

    One grandmother (who went to Wellesley) read Shakespeare and the classics and made notes in the margin with ink. I was always thrilled to read what she thought, thrilled that she didn’t care for the book’s value or purity. My other grandmother was a theosophist and read lots of spiritual things, stories from the east, etc. My mom read all the latest things– I’d lock myself in the closet and pore over Lolita, books about medicinal herbs and astrology, The Joy of Sex, Fear of Flying, etc.

    1. Teri Post author

      One grandmother went to Wellesley (*swoon*) and the other was a theosophist. That’s exactly what I mean when I say I love to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in that kind of environment. Surely when they were having tea or coffee, they were talking about things that sparked your imagination.

      I didn’t read LOLITA for the first time until about 5 years ago. Can you imagine? I wonder what it would be like to read it at age 14, then 25, then 40 ….

  10. Josey

    my mom is a VORACIOUS reader. she reads more than anyone i know. i love that most about her, i think. and that she gave that love of reading to me. she introduced me to marilyn french and erica jong in high school. she now gives my kids books with her name and the years she gives them on the inside cover.

    i think that through everything, it is books that ties my mother and i together. still.

  11. sherrystanfastanley

    My parents were both avid readers. I remember spending long Saturday afternoons at the library, and even though we had little expendable income, I was often allowed the thrill of ordering a book from the Scholastic Books flyer I brought home from school each month.

    When my two sons were growing up, I seldom gave in to their pleading for toys at the store. But I told them I would buy them any book they wanted.

    A parent’s reading habits don’t always affect their children’s love of books, but they surely don’t hurt.

    1. Teri Post author

      We always hoped our reading habits would rub off on our kids, but as you say, you never know how things will go. I remember when our kids were young and at home with us, how they’d head out on a Saturday night and leave us sitting there reading our books, how they’d joke with us, “Aren’t you guys bored?!” And now, when they come to visit, how we catch them sitting in the quiet, reading.

      1. Teri Post author

        Me, too, D. I can even remember how they smelled. I loved getting those Scholastic flyers in school, and the further joy of the arrival of the books the class ordered, and the teacher handing them out.

  12. Lyra

    My parents didn’t read at all. But they were always proud of the fact that I read and went out of their way to get me books when we didn’t have much extra to spare. The only bookcase in the house was the one behind my bed. My dad got it from someone throwing it out and painted it white. It was about four feet tall and worked as a headboard. I had rows of Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume and eventually VC Andrews. Oh, and Garfield comic books.
    Another bonus was that they never really questioned what I was reading only commenting on the speed. Then again, reading was my safety valve, my exit plan.
    As much as I wonder how different I’d be if my family were readers, I cannot imagine having to explain what I was reading or having them know what “Are You There God It’s Me Margaret?” was about. I would have been mortified and probably never picked up a book again if either of them wanted to discuss it…

    1. Teri Post author

      That’s an interesting angle, Lyra, the idea that reading was “yours” and that if they’d wanted to share it, that could have ruined it for you in some way. I also remember reading books that my family — especially grandma and mom — never even looked at the covers of. I think they were just happy I was quiet and entertained, which meant they didn’t have to worry about me. Of course from my perspective I was trying to stay under the radar and not be any trouble. Even now, when I look at kids who are willing to challenge their parents and get into trouble, I’m fascinated. I was never that bold.

    2. Jennine G.

      That’s a great point Lyra! I wouldn’t have gotten away with reading hardly anything I did if my mom had been more of a reader! I remember her asking me about Danielle Steel during my DS kick as a freshman in high school and of course I lied!

      1. Lyra

        I went through that phase in high school too! I think I even got rid of some of the dust jackets to avoid any unwanted suspicion… 🙂 .

  13. jpon

    No books in my house growing up. None. What got me into books, I think, was a combination of factors: a damn fine public school system with excellent teachers who made being smart semi cool, a predisposition towards nerdiness, and my parents lack of interest in forcing me to pursue any particular career field or belief system. But I sure do wish I’d been made to read more.

    1. Teri Post author

      There’s nothing quite like a good school and caring, engaged teachers to help a kid become who they want to be. And like you, as much as I read, I wish I’d been encouraged to read and explore more — as in more subjects. What would have happened, for instance, if someone had put science books in my hands? I’ll never know.

  14. Downith

    My mother was a huge reader – still is. My father didn’t read at all. The four of us kids all read lots as kids and still do.

    And, like Averil, one of my favourite mom things is reading to my kids. I still do it now at bedtime (they are now 9 and 10) and will continue to do so until they kick me out of their bedrooms!

    1. Teri Post author

      I can only imagine that reading to one’s kids, and snuggling in with them while doing it, would be one of the greatest of motherly joys.

  15. LauraMaylene

    My mother and her mother were huge readers, so I grew up always watching them deeply engrossed in books. I read somewhere that if you want your kids to be readers, what’s more important even than reading to them is having them see YOU read for yourself on a regular basis. I believe it.

    My grandmother suffered from macular degeneration later in life. The most traumatic part of her declining eyesight was the fact that she could no longer read. This made a lasting impression on me, and to this day, I remind myself to value my eyesight and try to take care of it the best I can now. I can only hope that so many hours a day of staring at screens won’t be my downfall.

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