A Reading Memory: Binge Reading with Aunt Effie
My path as a bibliophile has many stepping-stones along the way including those common to many bookworms: being given books as gifts, weekly trips to the local library, and parents who read to me. My journey does, however, have a few unique twist and turns that brought me to my current state, which is one of a ” To Be Read” pile that will never get finished and a love of books and bookstores that knows no bounds. Here is one such instance.
When I was growing up I spent a lot of summer days and nights at my grandmother’s house. Due to limited finances my family did not go on many vacation trips, so time at Granny’s was interspersed with Vacation Bible School and day camp to provide me with enough diversion to keep me from driving my mother crazy. I spent my days with my grandmother gardening, cooking and attempting to learn to sew.
Often my summer visits coincided with an appearance from my great-aunt Effie, one of my grandmother’s unmarried sisters. A gravelly, phlegmy cough and a shock of short white hair are the primary images I have when I think of her. To me she was ancient and an enigma: a short, wiry woman with a thin face laced with wrinkles, who dressed in a slouchy sweater and men’s slacks rolled up to the knee. Effie had no home of her own, so she became a circuit riding long-term guest, staying for a month to 6 weeks with each of her siblings in turn.
Effie always arrived with three brown paper grocery sacks: one containing her clothes and toothbrush, one stuffed with cartons of KOOL cigarettes, and the third filled with paperback books. Her habit was to install herself each morning on the brown, cloth sofa in Granny’s living room, with a carton of cigarettes, a stand ashtray, a glass of Coca-Cola, and her sack of books.
After lighting up a smoke, she would pull a book from the bag, tuck her feet underneath herself, and commence reading while the TV in the corner provided soft background noise. The only other sound in the room was the slapping of cards as my grandfather sat in his recliner smoking Salems and playing endless games of solitaire on his metal TV tray. Effie would finish a book and toss it back into the sack, rummage around and fish out another, light a fresh cigarette and off she would go into another world.
The summer I was eleven I abandoned Granny to her sewing, plopped myself down on the sofa and raised an eyebrow at Effie’s overflowing paper sack. She appraised me for a moment over the top of her glasses , then nudged the bag in my direction.
Effie’s reading tastes were narrow and consisted of two varieties of books: Harlequin romances and murder mysteries, neither of which I had encountered as my reading experiences up to this point had been curated by the elementary school librarian.
My reading tastes were matured and honed on that sofa over the next few summers. I discovered quickly that the romance novels were all the same story, just the names and hair color of the heroines changed from book to book. Those were not for me.
However, the mysteries were a revelation and a glimpse into a world my sheltered background had not permitted. My predilection for mystery fiction developed from Effie’s grocery bag library while binge reading Perry Mason mysteries by Earle Stanley Gardner.
My genre of choice for many years afterward was mysteries of any kind. I read rapidly through Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden as they were the mysteries available at school, though much tamer than the stories I had cut my teeth on. Later as I began buying my own books I discovered Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and many others including my all- time favorite, P.D. James.
As I grew older, my reading choices expanded to include a variety of genres, including fantasy, history, literary fiction, and memoir, but never romance. Some early experiences really do shape us, I suppose. And of course when I visit any bookstore, my feet naturally lead me to the mystery section hoping to discover a new favorite who has a long backlist of books I can look forward to devouring.
What shaped you as a reader?