Padded Brown Paper Envelopes and a Bus Full of Books

When I was a kid, I lived in the sticks. Literally, I was surrounded by trees and lived miles from anything that resembled modern civilization.  The nearest shopping mall, for example, was 40 minutes away.  The nearest movie theater was 45 minutes away.  Remember: I grew up in the dark ages before the internet, cellphones and digital media, so there was no OnDemand, streaming video, e-book downloads or anything like that, and the sheer distance to any of these things meant that I didn’t go unless I could ride my bike there. And even if I were to put a double-length tape into my WalkMan, strap my headphones on (since helmets weren’t required) and pedal as fast as I could, these trips would take a couple hours each way on a bicycle.

I think the part of living so far from everything that caused the most anxiety for me was the fact that the nearest library was also 40 minutes away. The Big Box book stores didn’t really exist yet (and even if they did, they’d have been the aforementioned 45 minutes or more away at the nearest malls)… so my only hope for getting new books was from the school library.  As an avid science-fiction reader, the paltry selection in my school’s library was not enough to satisfy my hunger for reading. As I got older and the required summer reading lists became duller and hardly ever included a science-fiction selection other than Fahrenheit 451, my desire to read over the summer waned. But that is when I discovered two things that changed my life as a reader.

First was the books by mail program.  Books by mail allowed me to request books from the library and have them sent straight to my mailbox. Readers could select as many books as they wanted and mail in the form, then the library would mail two paperbacks from the list to your home. Upon returning them, you could add more books to the list or just wait for the next pair to come (in a way this was like a precursor to Netflix).  Every couple of weeks I would look in the mailbox for that padded brown, paper envelope containing my weekly dose of fiction. It was exciting to get new-to-me books each week or two. Since there was no risk, I could just choose any or every book in the science-fiction category (or whichever genre I wanted).  This gave me the ability to experience new authors or really dive into specific authors’ catalogues.  One of the paperbacks I got through this program was Sudanna, Sudanna by Brian Herbert. While this isn’t the best book I ever read, it was one of the books that really made me think about the worlds I create in my own writing. I haven’t read it since 1986 but the basic story is about the peanut shaped planet, Ut, which is ruled by Mamacita – a 150 million year old supercomputer. Her every whim is a rule that is applied with dictatorial force. The book has humans in it, but humans are not its focus. The Utpeople are the focus. Their struggles as a society, their struggles as a species, their interaction and interconnectedness with their physical environment… all of this is investigated in the book in often humorous ways. This book helped me learn how to define the entirety of new worlds as opposed to just the locality of specific characters within those worlds. The book is out of print now, I think, but I keep my eyes open for it to either be re-released for the kindle or for it to be at a yard sale some day.

The second, more impactful discovery was the Bookmobile.  The Bookmobile was, essentially, a bus which was outfitted with bookshelves and a checkout desk. It was sent out to our town and others as a service from the county library.  I rode my bike a little over 3 miles each way to get to the parking lot where the Bookmobile would arrive each Tuesday at 3pm. Obviously, during the school year I couldn’t get there because I was still in school, but during the summers, I was there every week!

I remember the first time I went into the Bookmobile. The “book smell” was there, just like in a library. Rows of books filled the majority of the vehicle, with a narrow passageway down the middle allowing one to peruse the books and get to the check out desk right behind the driver’s seat. Only one or two people could be inside at a time due to the narrowness, but I liked that – the focus was on the books.  The selections consisted of almost entirely hardcover books across all genres. I, of course, dove right to the science-fiction area and grabbed all I could.  Unfortunately, the two books at a time limit made me put most of them back. There weren’t really that many sci-fi books to select, but I wanted to read them all. Every week I checked out my two books and rode away on my bike. Over time, the driver – I unfortunately cannot remember her name now – came to recognize my tastes and tried to help me out by adding a few more science-fiction selections on the days she’d be coming to my town, or by allowing me to take three or even four books at a time. After a month or so, I’d climb into that mobile library and she’d call me straight to the desk, where she had set a few books aside just for me.

Thanks to the Bookmobile, but even more importantly thanks to the librarian within it, I read books and authors I would have overlooked.  I read the entire Dune series one summer because she set them aside for me (I still haven’t seen the movie). I read other books by Frank Herbert as well:  The Green Brain, The White Plague… books I’d never heard of, but which were fantastic.  With the help of the librarian, I learned that I really don’t like Heinlein for some reason.  I learned that I like almost everything Arthur C. Clarke writes except for the endings to any of his books.  I learned that I do like everything Asimov wrote, including the endings. And all of these things helped me to learn about my own writing as well because it made me think about endings more carefully (since I saw the pattern of my distaste for Clarke’s endings) and it made me see more clearly just what I liked in terms of storytelling.

Ultimately, despite the best efforts of the school district to limit my reading to moldy oldies, summertime allowed me to discover books I’d have never read during the rest of the year. Much of this exploration and discovery was thanks to that one librarian who got to know me a little bit over so many summers. As libraries cut hours, services and branches, I worry that we will lose the ability to find books or authors to try in a “risk free” way. It feels like a rite of summer is slipping away from our children and I don’t know how to save it.

For the Love of Books

Library Books

I got into a discussion today about reading. Inspired by a forum post over on NaNoWriMo, I asked myself the question:

Can you be a good writer without being a reader?

As I was growing up, I was a voracious reader. We were poor, so I couldn’t afford a lot of books (although honestly, I doubt my parents could have afforded my reading appetite even if we weren’t poor… reading 4-5 books a week is expensive!) so we went to the library at least once every two weeks. I would check out an enormous stack of books, mostly from the science fiction section (back when Fantasy was lumped in with them all) and read them all. Most could be read in a day. Some heavier tomes with heavier themes might take a day or two.

These early reading experiences shaped my writing in incalculable ways. It shaped my understanding of how interesting stories are told. It helped me to understand how I could reach my own readers. It taught me language, a love of words, and a vast vocabulary that to this day occasionally confounds my friends and family. I cut my writing teeth on Isaac Asimov, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, and Neal Stephenson. I learned about tropes and cliches before I knew what they were.

So that begs the question. Can you be a great writer, or even an adequate one, without reading? If you don’t “like to read”, can you ever be a true writer?

I would say both yes, and no. Reading shapes who we are, and what we do. Many of us here no doubt grew up devouring books. It’s part of what gives us the drive to write! Can you write without reading? Sure. There are tons of different styles of writing. Poetry is a deeply personal expression that depends less on what other people are doing, and more on what you’re thinking and wanting to express. Short stories are very different from long fiction. A screenplay is a different art form altogether, and relies more on the movies you watch than the books you read.

But honestly? I strongly feel that you don’t become a great writer, or even a good one, without reading. Reading expands your mind and broadens your interest. The stories I write today are very much a reflection of the books I read yesterday. Novelists, particularly, need to read the same way a farmer must learn about plants and seeds, the way a carpenter has to learn how tools operate, and how to bang nails in a way that won’t shatter the wood.

Reading is the writer’s university, the authors of those books are your professors.

What books did you read growing up that shaped your love of writing?