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Reading Across America

It’s wonderful to discover people who share your secret indulgences. My fellow blogger Donalyn Miller writes of reading in airports -- and I had to smile because I, too, have been reading my way back and forth across America this summer. I left Virginia in the morning and arrived in California in the afternoon. Along the way, I wedged in a trip to Ireland where I spent the intervening hours with a flock of sheep as they avenged the murder of their shepherd in Three Bags Full. Not only can we take books with us, books can take us places we might not have the chance to visit.

While I physically returned to the East Coast by plane, my mind was taking the train west with the circus in the 1930’s as I read Water for Elephants. I’m old enough to remember the excitement of the Ringling Brother’s Greatest Show on Earth under a big top. I could smell the animals, hear the midway, and taste the dust. And I recalled the thrill of bareback riders, tightrope walkers, and the trapeze artists. My mother always warned me about the danger of the “carnie” people, but now I could roam behind the tents freely and without fear as I attended the circus by book. By book, I have been to places far more dangerous than the circus. Books let us go places we dare not venture in reality.

Books also allow us to travel through time. A week after I got home from California (via Ireland communing with the sheep and the Midwest with my pachyderm companions), my husband and I left to drive to Texas to visit our families. On the way to Texas I finished another book (ah, summer). Although Wolfe warned us that You Can’t Go Home Again , neither we escape Dreams from My Father. Books allow us to journey into the heart of our most personal relationships whether fictional or biographical.

I was taken by surprise by the intimacy of traveling through time and into the private spaces of my own family as we returned from Texas. For the better part of two days of the return trip, I read aloud from my maternal grandmother’s journals. She passed away on Christmas Eve the year before I was born, and I have always regretted not knowing this woman that I am said to closely resemble. Last week I spent 1942 with my grandmother. As I read her journals, the house that I remember so vaguely came alive as she did her church work and visited with a constant stream of friends and neighbors. In this story, my mother is a 17-year old, in her senior year, flitting in and out from school to church to social events. She is a flirt, a clotheshorse, a night owl and something of a spoiled princess—so different and yet not so different from the eighty-three year old mother I know today.

So why does a Family and Consumer Science teacher write about reading? Here is what I notice as I read. In every case, the characters and their world, whether fictional or historical, are shaped by the everyday experiences of the homes they make, the clothes they wear, the food on their table, and the relationships formed around these most common of daily domestic circumstances and experiences.

Donalyn writes that “Books build connections between readers.” They also build connections between people who live in places and under conditions that we will never experience. They invite us to reach across time into the past, and we develop an understanding of others by walking in their shoes, living in their homes, and joining them at their table. In doing so, we come to understand them and the world that we have shared. Along the way, we also come to understand ourselves.

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