My relationship to books has changed and evolved more than I might have imagined over the years. I grew up in a household where both of my parents had their nose buried in a sci-fi or fantasy novel at any given moment, trips to the library were pretty regular and I usually brought home a generous stack each time. I even stole money from my mother’s dresser drawer to buy more books from that Scholastic book sales circular that got passed out in elementary school because the one that I was allotted was just not enough in my relatively deprived opinion. Books were just as scattered about as toys, clothes, or anything else in my messy bedroom. By fourth grade, I was solidly in the advanced reading groups, which by then, meant I was in a minority, and with a teacher whose name fit her personality, Mrs. Stern, the class was geared for the more remedial readers and I was bored to tears. So my mom had me tested for the Gifted And Talented Education program (GATE) and I transferred to a new school that had more challenging curriculum for me.
By fifth grade, my mom and I moved to Orange County to live with my grandmother, and by extension, two aunts and a cousin. My grandmother’s house was always a place where bookshelves lined just about every wall, floor to ceiling, both my grandparents also being avid readers and my grandfather a curious tinkerer that built his own home computer long before that was a thing and participating in international seed exchanges long before globalization was part of our lexicon. I spent plenty of time browsing all the strange titles at my grandmother’s, many probably picked up at garage sales and thrift stores.
By eighth grade, I moved in with my father and step mother, and while the books on display were significantly more limited (keeping the local library in business was the default setting in this house), there was perhaps even more overt literacy happening. Not a day went by that my dad didn’t start his day reading, both weekdays and weekends. Weekdays he’d rise early, dress and groom for work, and always take about 20 minutes at the kitchen table to sip a cup of coffee and read a bit of whatever book he was currently reading before heading out the door for his long commute to work, and weekends always meant sitting unshaven and in his bathrobe at the same place poring for hours over every section of the paper, sipping coffee, sometimes helping stir chocolate chip cookie dough for my step mom, and wrapping up with Parade Magazine before shoving back to get dressed and continuing with his day. He had a weeknight ritual of going through the day’s mail and newspaper from a comfy chair in the living room as long as I can remember, while he sipped a beer. My step mom always had a murder mystery novel on the same comfy chair that she spent much of the day reading once she got my dad out the door and tended to her rigid schedule of chores–getting out meat to thaw for the evening’s dinner, mopping the kitchen floor, laundry, and so on, a different chore for each day. I’ve always had a fantasy that they’d dedicate a wing, or at least the murder mystery section in the Lompoc Public Library in her name–I swear she kept that place in business. She literally went through a book every day or so, making several trips a week to pick up books that were on hold for her or borrowed from another library through the interlibrary loan system. She took to putting a little pencil check mark in the upper corner inside the cover or on the title page after reading a book–a little signal to herself to keep track of books she’d already read. She did also buy new releases through a book club, and then promptly donated them to the library once she’d read them. In this house, I read myself to sleep every single night, until my eyes slammed shut, the book fell on my face, and I fell asleep with the light on, which my dad probably turned off when he came in last thing at night to scoop the cat off my bed and put him in the garage for the night.
My sister and I both, even as blindness became more evidently an issue, were both avid readers as young adults. As a young wife and mother, my sister, too, spent much time nose pressed into books or working on yarn projects when not managing kids or house. Pressing the book right up to our face was perfectly normal to us, the best way we knew how to access print having low vision, and technology for accessing print nowhere near what it is today, especially if you grow up in a relativley rural place, and we never thought too much about it. It didn’t strike me as at all odd until about age 15 or so, after travelling to the far reaches of Northern California to visit my dad’s sister, Annie, and while the grown ups sat around the kitchen table, I snuck off to lay on the couch and read. My dad took a picture of me there, laying flaton my back across the couch, head propped on arm rest pillows, and book literally in my face, not more than an inch or two from my nose. It was the first time I’d seen myself reading and one of the first times I remember feeling self-conscious or otherwise weird about something that clearly put me outside the bell curve of the “normal adult human experience”.
And then I went off to college, with no real role models or clear idea of what I was doing, just that it seemed like what I was supposed to do. I had no idea that it was the beginning of a 13 year academic career that would see me through a long evolution of understanding and embracing my disability, paradigm shifts in my life purpose, a marriage that would dissolve immediately thereafter, and radical redirection of who I thought I was and where I thought I wanted to be. For all these years and many more, I read less and less, and often not at all, for personal pleasure and spent more time than the average student studying, mostly in an effort to keep up with academic reading, which with no academic role models, I had no idea most of my peers who could read print weren’t really doing. They skimmed, they read selectively in a strategic way. I felt a responsibility to read closely everything assigned to me, even though I couldn’t possibly keep up with it with low vision and inadequate blindness skills, and just having no idea that most of my peers weren’t even trying. Trying in vain to access print and keep up with all those years of college taught me a lot about myself and forced me to confront the fact that I was facing much more than just “not seeing well,” I had a disability and had no idea what to do about it. I worked through a lot of it during these too many years of college, and came out on the other side more or less victorious as far as I’m concerned. While I still had a long way to go in terms of blindness skills, by 2006, I had an AA, a double major BA, an MA, international travel and study experience, and technology had come a long way to compliment my growing skills and identity as an actual disabled person. I was now accessing both traditional and electronic print thanks to a CCTV and screen magnification software on my computer. One of the most important things to happen to me as it relates to books was before I even managed to move past community college, I went off on a work and travel abroad experience, the first time I’d ever left the US, gone for six months. In my absence, my sister connected with the Braille Institute in Santa Barbara, who in turn, connected her with the National Library Services. “Book,” she said to me when I returned from my big European adventure, handing me that clunky old yellow four-sided cassette player. “It’s free, and the books come in the mail.” My mind was blown. I connected with the Braille Institute, too, and my very own NLS player, and started ordering books. In the thick of college life, I did not prioritize personal pleasure in my selection of books, though I was an information junkie, and in a perverse way, my selections did bring me pleasure–academic books in an audio format whenever I could, which was not often, though what I could get a fair amount of was source titles referenced by my professors, so I could at least read some of what their lectures and curriculum were based on–Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Thomas Friedman, Francis Fukuyama, and Samuel Huntington were all authors I was able to find via NLS or RFB&D, and unless it was an immediate required reading, these books were most often consumed in small doses in the last few minutes before I nodded off to sleep, as I mostly kept my audio book player next to my bed, deludeing myself that it was for personal reading.
And so went the majority of my reading habits through college and well beyond, for years, despite changes in technology available to me to access books, I still did it mostly in small doses as I drifted off to sleep, and I still continued to read a lot of non-fiction, like I was still in college, or still trying to catch up with that reading load. Needless to say, I wasn’t reading very many books–it took me forever to get through just one, constantly rewinding and rereading in small pieces. The next great evolution was when the NLS issued their digital talking book players, designed for ease of use to be very much like the old version, though much more compact, and using cartridges with a digital file instead of the old four-sided cassette, and they began making these digital files available for download via a website, Braille and Audio Recording Download (BARD), which I was excited about, but wouldn’t integrate into a regular habit for some time to come, thanks to the first iPhone I acquired many years later. The transition to digital media meant that audio books were democratizing, particularly in the blind community, and if you are a sighted person that enjoys audio books, you’re welcome–this is an innovation significantly stemming from the blind community. Connecting with my bestie and voracious reader that moved the needle on my own reading habits, brought a BookSense digital audio book player into my life, which is probably the tool that began to change my reading habits, taking reading away from my bedside in a big clunky player into something candy bar cell phone sized that slipped into my purse and made books available to me anywhere, especially while commuting within the vast transportation networks of the Bay Area, something I’d only experienced briefly in my travels to Europe. Transferring titles to the BookSense was not ideal, requiring downloading to a PC, and a cumbersome unzipping and transfer to the BookSense that was only just within my tech comfort zone, so it worked, though not without annoyances. Also lingering on the periphery of tools for accessing print was one that I didn’t really encounter until after my college career, a service aimed initially more at students than anyone, BookShare, and being very early in my skills and comfort with blindness, the robotic reading of synthesized text to speech was something I still hadn’t taken to, and this was a service I never fully availed myself of. The real tipping point came with the iPhone and the introduction of the BARD mobile app; yes, now there was an app for that–I could access those digital files available from the NLS directly and with minimal fuss via an iPhone app. As I began depending on my iPhone for all kinds of daily life, this became one of the earliest and best additions to my phone that I had. With a few simple taps and gestures, I had access to the Library of Congress, anytime, anywhere. I had a lot of catching up to do. And yet, for years, even though technology and myaccess to it changed, my habits had not; I selected a lot of non-fiction, and I read in small doses at bedtime. Honestly, I’d lost the passion and verve for reading that I was steeped in as a kid, I’d hit some kind of reading or intellectual plateau, that was at least in a way, being filled by podcasts, my new technology fixation. Books were just always so hard to access, in a way, I think I’d given up on them, even though my access was renewed.
And yet I despaired and mourned the loss of love of books from my life, it just wasn’t how I was raised. I was gathering information and intellectual stimulation from podcasts and other sources, though I still felt a hole where books used to be.
Quite possibly a pivotal moment in the evolution of my reading habits, was deciding to read the entire Harry Potter series, watching each corresponding movie with my bestie and her husband in full approval as I finished each one, within the course of less than a year, I’d say. I also turned them onto the Showtime series Dexter when I moved in with them and we soon discovered there were books to read that the series was based on and read them as a household. Reading was becoming recreational, fun, and truly pleasurable again, slowly but surely. And as I embraced the idea, for the first time in a very long time, that I was not a full time student anymore, and that books could genuinely be simply for pleasure, I began to seriously reconsider my reading habits.
While there are many titles available through NLS, it represents a scant sliver of the world’s literary works, and my frugal nature inclined me to be happy with all the books on NLS I’d not read. Though more contemporary titles tend not to be available, and set the BARD dependent behind the curve on current events and literary works. As I searched for more pleasure and personal development in my reading selections, the more I knew I needed to branch out and change my habits, and dammit, I was fully employed now and could afford spending a little money as needed. I made the leap and committed to an Audible subscription, which was frankly more money than I really needed to spend on books at the 18 credits per year level, and I was willing to give it a try. I still consult my free resources first, and only go through Audible if I can’t get it anywhere else, and it’s looking to be a bit of a Christmas gift to myself. I signed up in February two years ago, and if a title that I really want to read is not available through my free resources, I add it to my Audible wish list, and right about this time of year, purchase titles with credits about to expire that are still not otherwise available. With my growing passion for all things food, the book that triggered this habit was Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, which made me realize I could read Audible books through my Alexa device, giving me another platform from which to read, and making me realize that having more platform options was the key for me to expand my reading habits.. Another food book I decided I absolutely needed to read was Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, which was not available through any of my channels except to purchase as aKindle book on Amazon, pushing me to open yet another channel for devouring books and getting me more comfortable with listening to synthesized speech to read a book and finally actively using an app I’d downloaded and never really used–I’d start using it even more in conjunction with my access to digital and audio books via the public library, something I’d always felt weird about–it’s just ones and zeros–why should it expire? And this discomformt was mostly rooted in the fact that I didn
Have personal habits that would accommodate an electronic borrowing of a book.
As of last year, though, my habits still hadn’t changed dramatically, so I knew adding it to my 19 for 2019 would push me in the direction of figuring out what new habit changes would move the needle more on this part of my life, and it definitely has. I knew, in fact, that habit change was at the heart of what I needed to work on, and I reluctantly created a Goodreads account at the begining of this year, uncertain of the value of adding another social media account to my life. The first thing I found was the reading challenge, which I didn’t even know where to begin with–I just knew it took me forever to finish a single book, I had no concept of how many I could or would read in a year. So I started with an intuitive baseline of a dozen, figuring I could manage one book a month. This goal, indeed, was met by July and I’ve read 31 books this year and might even finish a few more before the year is done. More importantly, it’s not burdened me with more social media to manage, and is simply a good tool for measuring something I’ve not measured before.
When a book-loving colleague came on board where I work, she became the library pusher, and I eventually caved in and claimed my San Francisco Public Library card with her guidance and downloaded the Libby app and started using it, despite its less than desireable accessibility. While I’d be wise to manage this tool more closely, it has greatly expanded my access to books, I’m starting more books than I’m finishing right now thanks to Libby and Kindle.
By embracing and expanding more devices and platforms for reading, doing it more has become second nature. I occasionally avail myself of our Alexa devices to read, I have an old iPhone that I use around the house and I use that one as actively to read as I do my newer, daily use phone, and on each device, you’ll find open in my app switcher, my trusty BARD app, the audible app, the Kindle app, Libby, and even a free audio book app that plays LibriVox recordings, and if I’m knitting, commuting, settling in to sleep, or otherwise in a position to focus on a book, I’ll pull up any one of these depending on my mood. I may not have been confident of the number of books I was reading before, and I wasn’t measuring it. I am now and I’m certain it was more than before anyway. And much like having a work-related outlet for my knitting habit, I also started an audio book group as one of my programs, which just pushes me to read that much more. I’ve also expanded the kinds of books I’m reading–they reflect where I happen to be as an adult human now in contrast to books I read in the past–I’m really into anything food related, reading tons of books about happiness and personal development, and even digging a little into biographies and more fiction, categories I’ve never really entertained actively in the past. I feel really good about the habits I’ve developed in this category and will not opt to roll this over into next year’s list–I have recovered my reading mojo and look forward to setting loftier goals for Goodreads and picking items from my Audible wish list to continue growing that selection of reading options.
Next post: one of my least favorite drudgeries, email.