What Reading Means to Me, Part II: The Teenage Years


Continuing on from What Reading Means to Me, Part I: The Early Years.

Secondary school (age 11-16) introduced me to the classics. Well, tragic classics:

The last was a stark lesson in the importance of treating people well, how you’d want to be treated, to avoid being responsible for harmful repercussions of my actions experienced by others.

But it wasn’t until I studied for my A-levels (age 16-18), after choosing English Literature and Psychology, that reading really changed me.

Othello, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and The Crucible enlightened me to racism and the effect of being a minority or an anomaly in a community.

A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman taught me that life was tough and unfair, and A Room with a View told me life wasn’t worth living unless I follow my heart.

The Importance of Being Earnest‘s sense of humour and wit let me know classics aren’t all dull and serious, they can be charming too.

Taking the exam on Emma twice and reading The Pardoner’s Tale showed me that I can’t grasp and understand everything I read. Some challenges just can’t be overcome.

And until The Catcher in the Rye I had never failed to at least partly enjoy a book.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Angela Carter’s anthology of short reworked fairy tales for adults saw me fall in love. Everything fairy tale and Disney-related was turned on its head. I had been introduced to feminism. Titillation and embarrassment reddened my cheeks as we read it aloud in class. You see, it was a touch erotic. Cunts were pierced by figurative swords owned by werewolves and vampires.

Yes, Carter really used that word. And she was labelled a pornographer for it. Well, it was written in the 1970s. She used paedophilia and necrophilia to illustrate the wrongness of underage marriage. My enthusiasm for my new heroine earned me my first official ‘A’ grade of which I’m still proud.

And this is where I get uncomfortable.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Never has a book had such an impact. This is a difficult subject for me to talk about.

Reading it was an experience. I was with Celie every step of the way. Her anguish was my anguish. Her fears, her tears – mine.

Sexually abused by the man she believed was her father, the resulting children taken from her in the dark of night. Sold off into marriage to another abusive man and forced to care for his children, and later, his mistress – with whom Celie comes to fall in love. And forcibly separated from her beloved sister – the first person to ever truly love her. I desperately wished Celie happiness, to be reunited with her children, to dispense vengeance on those who’d wronged her, and to live happily ever after with the love of her life.

Not long after reading, I stayed up late so I could watch the Spielberg movie starring Whoopi Golberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. It was wonderful. I cried. I continue to cry at the exact same point every time I see it. I loved it so much that I accidentally-on-purpose forgot to return the novel to the school. Instead I gave it to my mother, and I bought the DVD. This may have been a mistake.

My mother has also led a hard life and as a result struggles with depression and a number of anxiety disorders, including PTSD. She’s lived with it for most of her life, and I believe I am the only reason she is still among the living. Mental illness can be all-consuming and sometimes the lifelong development of personality is neglected. Likes and dislikes aren’t as numerous as one would assume because people suffering with it don’t know how to distract themselves with hobbies and interests. In this case, I was the sole distraction. She lived vicariously through my interests and came to enjoy most of them. The Matrix was a favourite. I’m not sure how many times she’s watched it. Too many, most likely. This was the fate of The Color Purple.

I’ve just deleted 3 very long, intensely personal and painful paragraphs which smacked of grade-A sympathy bait, so instead I’m going to sum up. This book gave her a stroke. It sounds melodramatic and exaggerated, but it’s the truth. It radically changed the course of both our lives.

Books have power.

This experience inspired me to dig further into psychology to understand its effect on physiology, and started my relationship with Google as my research assistant.

Stay tuned for Part III: Adulthood

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