Today I had a review go live at PANK, in their regular column "Books We Can't Quit." The book I chose to write about was Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags, and you can read the review here if the title isn't familiar. Waugh is one of my favorite writers -- quick, witty, and endlessly entertaining while appealing to that strange all-too-American fascination with the British elite. He taps into the same part of my psyche that Downton Abbey does, if I'm being honest, but with a far better eye for satire.
But here's the thing about my deep love for Waugh: It all started on a random summer day, in the basement of Northwestern Illinois University's library, when I was 13 years old. I was on campus for some acting intensive with various other middle school children, but I was most excited about having a chance to explore a college campus. While peeking around the library, pretending I could blend in as a college student, I spotted Waugh's Scoop on the shelf. The particular edition didn't have any plot information, but the cover design was a collage of various hideous wall papers and I decided to buy it immediately. I still own that specific copy of the book, and read it ever year or so.
I was never the kind of kid to worry about what was or wasn't age appropriate, and fortunately neither were my parents. I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in fifth grade, my favorite book in eighth grade was Wicked, and my first time reading The Communist Manifesto was Sophomore year of high school just for fun. I was one of very few (if any other) students who were allowed to check books out from any section of both the school and public library from a very young age.
Sure, this kind of unchecked access to the wide world of book resulted in a few mishaps. While reading Frankenstein at age eight, I had to mutter, "It's just Herman Munster on a really bad day," over and over again to keep from getting scared. I routinely felt the need to hide what I was reading, lest a teacher notice I was reading Anne Rice novels in seventh grade and, I assumed, get me grave trouble with the authorities. I also didn't read the same books as my peers, something that caused me a bit of pride at a young age but now feels like gulf in our education. I've never read, say, Chicken Soup for the Soul or A Child Called It, both touchstones for my generation.
But, really, I got something much more important than the camaraderie of my classmates by being able to read whatever my little heart desired. Even if I didn't totally understand what I was reading, my mind was expanding beyond the small Illinois town I grew up in, and filling up with weird ideas and strange words. I tried on more adventures before the age of 14 than many people do in their lifetimes, and as a result learned to make connections between the genres and themes I loved most. Reading, like film and music, was something unfettered by my very prohibitive (in the years immediately before the internet) location. Books were little windows into different places and times, through which I could crawl and become someone entirely new for 100 or 200 or even 500 pages.
And I'm thankful every single day that my parents, and my teachers, and my local librarians didn't nail any of those windows shut before I even got to peek through them.
Bridey is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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