Reading Like a Sixth Grader

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All in all, my current attitude towards reading reminds me, as I said in my last entry, of the summers before and after sixth grade, which I think is when I read more--voraciously, compulsively--than at any other time in my life. Actually I've reverted to sixth grade in several ways: just as I did during summers when I was nine or ten or eleven, I like to sleep late, put on comfy clothes, then settle down to munch cookies I've made and plow through one book after another.

The very first thing I read, when the end of the semester was in sight and I could read whatever I wanted, was Her Little Majesty, a really mediocre biography of Victoria by Carolly Erickson. But even that was kind of like scholarly reading, because I was teaching a class on colonial lit and after all, Victoria ruled over the largest colonial empire in the history of the world.

But the next thing I read all 480 pages of a Life of Elizabeth I by Allison Weir, and I did it in a weekend. I've read more biographies of Elizabeth Tudor than anyone else but she continues to fascinate me, and Weir's biography was excellent. I would have to stretch to make it relevant to my studies, because I don't do anything at all with the renaissance. Fact of the matter is, as a historical period, I much prefer the middle ages to the renaissance.

Then I reread several works by Karen Armstrong--all her memoirs: Through the Narrow Gate, Beginning the World and The Spiral Staircase, because they count as research for a paper I'm presenting in November and because I just plain wanted to. I even annotated them, but I find her work so compelling that it still felt like fun.

And I then I looked at my bookshelf and decided I wanted to read some things I'd be willing to sell to a used book store, because I really need to thin out my book collection. So I dragged off the shelf A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, the first two books of Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy, which were given to me last summer by a colleague who was leaving town.

And that's another way I've reverted to sixth grade, because they're considered juvenile fiction, though they're not really the least bit simple or simplistic. Nonetheless I read The Tombs of Atuan when I was in fifth or sixth grade, because it was a Newbery honor book and I wanted to read all the Newbery honorees. And boy oh boy did it freak my shit out. I had always remembered how profoundly that book unsettled me, which is one reason I accepted the books when my colleague offered them: I recalled aspects of that book very clearly, and I wanted to revisit them as an adult and understand better what that book was about.

So I sat down one afternoon and started A Wizard of Earthsea. I finished it after a couple of hours, at which point I refused to let myself pick up the sequel until I washed my dishes because they needed it and went for a walk (my mother and I used to have terrible fights about how I never got any exercise because I was too busy reading, and she wouldn't let me go to the library unless I went swimming at least twice a week) because I'd been so sedentary all day. And when I got home from the walk, around sunset, I curled up on my couch inside and finished The Tombs of Atuan in one sitting. I would have started The Farthest Shore, the third book in the series, that night at 11, but I didn't have a copy and had to be content with ordering it from the library.

The Tombs of Atuan is a creepy book in a lot of ways, about some dreadful cult that worships darkness, and the high priestess of that cult, who begins her initiation into her position at age five, and how she eventually leaves it. And though it freaked my shit out, I think it must have influenced me profoundly on some fundamental level, because it's also about the loss of faith and the cost of leaving a belief system. I reread this passage about fifteen times:

A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy.... She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free.

What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.

Did that ever resonate.... I had to wonder: Was I primed to leave the church in 1989 when I was 25 because of a book I read in 1974, when I was 10? I don't know. I do know I didn't feel the slightest desire to do anything but read. So before I went to bed, I read The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt, one of my favorite books from my childhood. So I read three books in one day. Which was my favorite thing to do when I was ten.

p.s. In finding the links for this entry, I discovered that the Earthsea Trilogy is actually a quartet... make that a quintet, with a couple of short stories thrown in to boot. So I get to look forward to more reading!

3 Comments

Growing up as an introverted, socially alienated child, I was also a voracious reader. (I also had a three-hour daily commute on the school bus, and tried to make it count.)

The Wizard of Earthsea was among my favorites. Now that I'm making my own exit from Mormonism and theism in general, the passage you shared moved me powerfully. Only somebody who has grappled with the same questions could have written something so compassionately honest.

Maybe it's time for me to read those books again...

Hi Eric--I'm glad you found your way to my blog. I hope that if you do reread The Earthsea books again, you'll let me know how they resonate now for you.

Hello from Hong Kong.

I'm in my thirty and I have just read Tombs of Atuan for my first time. The story is very simple but I found it quite heavy to me.

I was searching info about this book related with religion. Surprisingly not many, I am a protestant and I do wonder sometimes about my faith.

I want to understand more about Tenar. Saying goodbye to long time faith is not easy. As you say I don't know if I would leave my church too.

The story is very simple but like the labyrinth. It's very dark and heavy.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on June 24, 2007 2:00 PM.

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We Have Lingered in the Chambers of the Sea is the next entry in this blog.

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