reverting back to my 10-year-old self

When I was in second grade, I was home-schooled for a year. During the first week of school, my teacher, Mr. Dad, assigned me reading homework: I had a week to read Laura Ingles Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods. To counteract the image any of you, my dear readers, may have of me as having always been a perfect student, allow me to present you with an alternative image: little Calah playing with her long braid as she explains to her dad on Sunday night how, although she hadn't finished the book as she was suposed to, she did, in fact, read a whole chapter! However, she never again had to plead her case, because from that point on, a book per week became a laughable minimum requirement.

When I was around ten years old, my family moved to the Navajo Reservation in Northeastern Arizona. We lived about a half hour's drive from my school, and there were few children my age on the hospital compund we lived on in Ganado, Arizona. I didn't have a lot of friends. However, while the first few years were difficult, I don't remember being lonely, per se. Mostly I just remember reading read all the time.

In college, I read plenty, but--as assigned reading and competitive running are
wont to do--was too exhausted during my breaks to do much reading for pleasure aside from the occassional, long-anticipated Harry Potter book. I must admit to some sadness at the fact that I, who had in some sense dedicated my life--or a chunk of it--to words, no longer felt a desire to read unless forced. Although that isn't entirely true--I often felt the desire to be swept away by a great story again, to stay up well past my bedtime reading a book I couldn't put down. But when I would try to pick up a book, there just wasn't any chemistry there.

Well, I'm pretty sure I've found the spark again. While I probably have more friends than my 10-year-old self, I seem to have reverted back to her habit of devouring any book she could get her hands on.

Last week I finished reading Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcom Gladwell. I enjoyed the book, but the significance of this is not in the book itself, but in the fact that it is the twentieth book I have read in the almost eight months I have been in Viet Nam. Now, by my calculations, this is only 2.5 books per month--probably less than the weekly average of my 10-year-old self--but I still think that it is a significant number, even if some of them were on the short side. Whether or not you agree is irrelevant to me; I mention my twentieth book because reading has been a significant and very enjoyable part of my time living in Viet Nam. It has been at times an escape from loneliness, at times entertainment during periods of boredom (yeah, Mom, I know that word is not in the Bible, but sometimes I just can't find another word to describe it!), and at times a justification to myself for not watching MTV with my host sisters, just to name a few times.

Anyways, as no one but me is probably quite as excited about my entire "Books read in Viet Nam" list, I thought I would just mention a few of my favorites thus far:

The Bean Trees (Barbara Kingsolver): It's set in Arizona: automatic bonus points. I think I read this one in two days because it was so amazing. I don't really know why; it's just a good story, I guess, aside from being well written. If I was allowing myself to list multiple books by the same author, Animal Dreams would be here too, especially since that one is not only set in Arizona, but part of it takes place in Canyon de Chelly--around Christmas Day! (My family used to hike in Canyon de Chelly every Christmas Day!!!) Ok. I'm done with my AZ ad now. Don't be misled; The Bean Trees really is good in its own right, not just for Kingsolver's excellent choice of setting.

The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay (Michael Chabon): Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction (I forget which year), this book drew me in from the beginning. I thought the second half dragged a little, but what book this long doesn't at some point? In a nutshell, it's about two Jewish-American immigrant cousins who start a comic book whose superhero fights the Nazis. Hannah found this lying around our office and recommended it to me. We in turn recommended it to Ali. This is how it usually goes with our reading here--our book selection is limited, so we pass books around. Added bonus is that we get to discuss them afterwards!

Telling Secrets (Frederick Buechner): It might seem strange, given my previous statement about my limited literary selection, that I am in the middle of my fourth Buechner book. The explanation is simple: my Bible study leader is obsessed with Buechner and has a personal library that contains nearly every book he has ever written (a considerable sum). Buechner is a writer (obviously) and Presbyterian minister with a knack for elucidating the divine in the ordinary. Telling Secrets is the third of his four-part autobiography, and my favorite thus far. I haven't yet, but am interested to, pick up one of his novels. Actually might do that at Bible Study tonight...

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Annie Dillard): You might ask how I escaped from the Calvin English Department without having read this. The answer would be that I shouldn't have...This is a book that demands time, something that I either didn't have or didn't allow myself when I was assigned it in English 101; thus, I was never quite able to understand my professors' awe of Dillard's long-winded account of her life in the forest. Here in Viet Nam, I had time to unravel Dillard's gorgeous, half-page sentences and more properly absorb the profundity she extracts from the fecundity (and other aspects) of nature. Ok, Schmidt and VanderLei, I get it now...

The Quiet American (Graham Greene): This book takes place in Viet Nam during the first Indochina War. It was fun to recognize the names of places and people, even if some of the war history went over my head. This book may have the effect of making you hate the fact that you are an American (if you are) for a couple days; but that's probably not a bad perspective to have now and then. If you're not much of a reader, it's been made into a movie that I hear is pretty good too.

The Chicago Manual of Style (The University of Chicago Press): This is not actually on my list because I can't claim to have read the whole thing (yet). However, I am ever more amazed by this orange book, which never ceases to brighten my day when I get the chance to use it. It resides just inches from my left hand all day at the office and gives helpful advice while recognizing the fact that an editor's work is often more of an art than a science (in Viet Nam it is often more along the lines of code-breaking). I must admit my nerdiness and the fact that I welcome editing questions just to have an excuse to open it, and then often get distracted from my work by perusing its pages. You think I'm joking, but I'm really not. Just ask Hannah.

So, where do I usually read these books? Often on my incredibly comfortable bed at home. Or on a bench by a lake (contrary to popular belief, these benches are useful for many things besides making out) or in a cafe during my ridiculously long (2 hour) lunch breaks.

So, what's next? Well, that's an interesting question on multiple levels. I just cracked open What Color is Your Parachute? a book my dad recommended the other week after we discussed this question in the context of my life. I can only hope that it might provide some insight...

(Note: I hope that none of you, like me, are always disappointed by things you hear rave reviews of. If you are, then I'd advise you to disregard my enthusiastic commentary about the above books, but check them out of the library anyway.)


  1. ooo- those books do sound really good! I started getting books on ipod and listening to them while I ran...then I felt kind of silly because there were some sad parts and it would make me tear up while running..and scary parts made me run faster : ) You should try it. It takes a long time to get through a book though.