An Essay by Melanie Gideon
I was a reader before I was a writer. And one of the reasons I am a reader is because once a month, when I was a girl, my mother brought me and my two sisters to a bookstore. Well, actually it was more of a back room called the Book Nook. One room in a warren of rooms in a general store that sold penny candy, gardening tools and chicken feed. I’ll never forget the smell of the Book Nook: turpentine, dust, and improbably, Grape Fanta. The scent of possibility and hope.
I still smell that phantom perfume when I walk into a bookstore. Bookstores are portals into other worlds. Every book on the shelf is a doorway and it’s up to you whether you enter or not.
Back to my mother and my sisters. It was the 1970’s. Bell-bottom jeans and John Denver playing on the radio. We were each allowed to buy five books (all the books at the Book Nook were used and thus priced to sell at fifty cents). We would make our choices, race home and begin a marathon of reading, on the barn roof, on the back stoop—and for me in the branches of an old maple tree (like many authors my alter ego was Harriet the Spy and the tree did double duty, serving as a chaise lounge as well as a perfect eavesdropping venue).
Is there any more immersive experience than reading? It seemed like magic to me when I was a girl, and it still does. Where else but between the pages of a book can you find yourself skipping pebbles on a lake with a girl named Caddie. Stepping into a musty old wardrobe, pushing your way past fur coats, the smell of mothballs in the air, and then—suddenly—it’s snowing. Enchantment! Bewitchment! Real life paled in comparison. One week I lived in an attic in Brooklyn. I was an assistant pig keeper the next week. A piano-playing child prodigy the next.
Reading showed me that anything was possible. I time traveled. I sharp-shooted. I gathered and I received. In essence, books taught me what it meant to be human.
And the best thing? Every night I got to go home, my wanderlust sated. Back to my mother and my sisters, and a plate of Spaghetti-O’s. And if I had torn through my monthly allotment of five books, I knew there were my ten more waiting for me, and once I’d torn through those, another visit to the Book Nook. Pure heaven, those weekends and summers and nights of reading.
Forty-something years later, nothing has changed. As I’m writing my way into worlds of my own creation, I am always reading—for inspiration, for fuel, for escape.
As B.F Skinner said “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading. I have my mother to thank for that.
Melanie Gideon is the bestselling author of the novels, Valley of the Moon and Wife 22, as well as the memoir The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After. Her books have been translated into 31 languages. Wife 22 is currently in development with Working Title Films. She has written for the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, More, Shape, Marie Claire, the London Times, the Daily Mail and other publications.
Written for Books Inc.'s August 2016 Newsletter