Spies, Bears and Cowboys: My Love Affair with Books

When I was in an awkward phase (which I really haven’t grown out of) in middle school, I was completely obsessed with the Baby-Sitters Club books. I was engrossed in the Scholastic series that featured a group of middle school girls who formed a babysitting club in a fictional town in Connecticut. When I was twelve, I wanted nothing more than to find a group of friends to call my own, to be a member of a club that had more than two members: myself and my imaginary friend, MacIntosh Apple, and wanted to escape my small town life and dream about New York, art, music, and fashion. I found all of this and more in the pages of my paperback copies of a series that I read over and over for many of my young voracious reading years.

When I read the series, in the early 1990s, there were four main members of the club and all of the characters possessed traits I desperately yearned for. While I related to Mallory with her braces and glasses, I tried as best I could with my boy-short haircut, huge oval glasses, and mouth full of hardware to turn myself into a funky and artsy Claudia. I was a total nerd, inept at truly securing friendships with girls, and lived mostly inside my vivid imagination instead of connecting with others. Books were my go-to friends, my guide books, my sacred texts.

My drug is the written word. I can’t get enough of it. At breakfast, when my brain is first starting to fire after a night of sleep, I have to read something while I drink my coffee. I love to read a magazine while I eat, which is pretty rude when you dine with just one other person and he is forced to watch the top of your head bob up and down over the slick pages. I read every night before bed. I feel jittery and nervous when I don’t have something to read while I’m waiting at a doctor’s office or on a plane. I must have something to read, at all times.

When I was really little, I read the Berenstain Bears books. When the bears cleaned up their messy rooms, so did I. The bears had an entire book devoted to organizing and cleaning and while my intentions were to live up to their neat ways, I spent more time reading the book, imagining how my closet would look if I too had their brightly colored bins to organize and sort my clothes, toys and books than I did actually heeding their advice.

Stories have an unbelievable power of me. Not only do stories inspire me but they carry so much weight in my heart. When I’m upset, I go to my books. I finger the spines, admire their jackets and muse over the ones I loved the most: the writers who created characters who seemed to enter my  crazy little brain and take up permanent residence. When I’m upset, I go to a bookstore and feel immediate relief when I arrive at the checkout line with a stack full of books in my arms.

Seven years ago I went to therapy to figure out how to get out of the mess I had made of my life when I failed to listen to my own voice. I  got through therapy and regained a greater, kinder sense of self because not only did I attend my weekly sessions but my therapist also knew the direct way to get into my brain was through books. I read about families and hurt and loss and learned that co-dependence is not a box you check when you file your tax return.

I can attribute my snooping habit solely to my all-time favorite book, Harriet the Spy. I have read the book at least twenty times. That book probably got me into more trouble than any other book. It is still one of my favorites and I absolutely adore  Harriet. Of course my other favorite childhood book and one that still retains great importance in my life is Where the Wild Things Are. I like wild rumpuses. And one daydream that occupied much of my thoughts was to run away from home, abandon my family, and live amongst the wild things, whether they were monsters on an island that you can only find by sailboat, a group of smart and sassy girls living on the east coast, or in the corners of some New York apartment, joining Harriet on her spying adventures.

In college, I discovered Pam Houston, an incredible author who wrote of a life in the west that I desperately wanted. I read the short-story collection Cowboys Are My Weakness in my sophomore writing workshop  and that’s when I learned how to write from my own voice. I think with Houston’s work I not only found power in her stories and in her vulnerable characters, but was moved, startled almost, by her voice, by a woman who loved fast moving rivers, the kind of men who’ll take you on great adventures all over the world but might not be the kind who’d truly let you wander into their hearts, could speak, in all of her stories, with honesty. I pestered the English department for two years to bring Pam Houston to DePauw as a visiting writer and I was lucky enough that they honored my request and selected me to interview and introduce her at the well-attended reading. In another collision of lives, she spoke in Whitefish several years ago at a writer’s workshop that was very disappointing, but despite the failed workshop, we ate sushi and took my dog Reilly for a walk along the Whitefish River. I may have made Pam nervous as I gushed and gushed over her writing style and lusted over her world travels and adventures in whitewater.

I’ll admit again, I love writers. All I want to be is a part of their club, a member of their tribe. I’d join their cult and drink the Kool-Aid.

And then, there is Jim Harrison. Harrison is by far my favorite author. He was raised in northern Michigan, loves the Upper Peninsula, and also has a home in Montana. Folks might know him best as the author of Legends of the Fall which  turned into a hit movie in the 90s staring Brad Pitt. Harrison’s wrote for Hollywood but he’s also one of the best talented writers of our time. He’s a novelist, a poet, an incredible short story writer (which is no easy feat), loves the outdoors, and writes beautifully about wine, sex, and food. His stories are built upon some very intense and intriguing wild and hungry characters: people you cannot shake out of your blood, like Dalva and BD (Brown Dog).

In November when I returned home to northern Michigan with Cole in tow, I had a mild panic attack by Day 4. I was feeling a bit unnerved and unsettled by my family interactions and instead of dragging Cole off to a bar (Oh, I’m not truly an angel, I’ve just learned my lessons with alcohol) to help regain my sanity, I took him to our local bookstore. Books make me feel safe and calm. Like a cigarette for a smoker, they ease my nerves. I read after sex, actually. When I want to plunge further into my mind, that jagged arena, I turn to Harrison–he gives me a few other people who live in their mind, plodding along in the world trying their best to not show up piss drunk on their mothers’ doorsteps. When I’m upset, I go further into his stories. It actually makes me feel better. I can escape into another character’s life. I fall in love with Harrison’s characters, male and female.

The list of my favorite books and authors could go on and on and on. David James Duncan’s The River Why is another life altering book. He’s a brilliant writer. And then there are the great writers: Hemingway, Flannery O’Connor, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger, Carver…and there are still many more I need to read.

Throughout my life, I’ve fallen in love with spies, bears, cowboys, and a woman lit by fireflies. This is one love affair I know will never end. When I finish one story, I always know that there’s another one just around the corner.

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7 thoughts on “Spies, Bears and Cowboys: My Love Affair with Books

      1. Anne

        Last night, I was trying to remember if I ever gave it to you. I guess I did.

        I’m working on a post for my own blog about maps now, although I’m finding it hard to come up with an ending about their awesomeness. And, I’m busy comparing various maps to figure out where to stay in DC when I visit a grad school next month.

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