The Book That Made Me a Reader
Sara Paretsky on Louisa May Alcott and James Joyce
I can’t remember the first books I read, although I do remember the first words I wasn’t able to sound out: “city” and “Penelope.” Perhaps I was reading a child’s history of the Trojan War. My older brother taught me to read and write as he was learning those things, so I don’t remember beginning, I only remember being in the middle.
It wasn’t a particular book that taught me to be a reader, but the process of reading. When I was about seven, one of my Hanukkah gifts was a little fire for my dollhouse that turned on with a switch. That was when I first was able to read under the covers after going to bed. For my ninth birthday, I was given a bed lamp, which I smuggled under the covers until the disastrous night I set the sheets on fire. After that, I remembered to stop reading when I smelled scorching.
Reading became for me an intensely private pleasure, savored alone, in secret. When I was an adolescent and my mother’s illness made me the de facto housekeeper and parent to my young brothers, reading became an even more private refuge, the novels I’ve always loved consumed after midnight, when the rest of the house was asleep and my father couldn’t harass me to take on one more job. I still prefer to read alone, despite living for many years with a man who would never ask me to put down a good book.
Little Women was probably the first book I read that had me completely in its thrall. I got it for Hanukkah the year I was seven, and it took me six months to read the whole book, but after that, I read it every time I was home sick from school. I can still recite large portions from memory.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is the book that made me long to write, even though it was many years later that I wrote my own first novel. As with Little Women, I read and reread it many times. I’m not an intellectual reader. That is, I like stories and characters, not novels of ideas. But Joyce straddles those two forms. His wordplay is constantly arresting and yet his characters draw the reader deep into their personal story. I reread Dubliners recently, wondering if it would resonate with me as much as it had when I first encountered those stories at age seventeen. I found them even richer from the perspective of later life and still can’t believe he was in his twenties when he wrote them.
Photo Credit: Steven E. Gross
Sara Paretsky is the author of twenty books, including the renowned V. I. Warshawski novels. She was named 2011 Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, and is also the recipient of the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award given by the British Crime Writers’ Association. She lives in Chicago.