I spent this past weekend back home in Pennsylvania. There are a lot of August birthdays in my family, one of the most important of which is my Nana’s. As you probably already know if you’ve been part of the SSR community from the beginning, we lost my grandmother very suddenly last September (on my birthday, actually). The year since her death has been hard on all of us, and none of us knew how it would feel to wake up on her birthday, this time without her. I’m so glad that I spent the occasion with my family so that we could support each other. As we approach the one-year anniversary of losing her, I do my best to celebrate her every day.
Nana was the only person who loved books as much as I do — in fact, she’s one of the people most responsible for making me a reader — so it seems only fitting to pay tribute to her and some of the lessons she taught me about reading in honor of her birthday. My mom and I lived with my grandmother for a big chunk of my childhood and she and I had a very special relationship, so it’s hard for me to put into words how all of this has felt. But she and I always shared books, and I like to think that reading allows me to stay connected with her, even though she’s not here with us anymore.
Here’s what she taught me about books in the twenty-eight years we had together…
1.Read outside of your comfort zone.
Nana was always quick to tell me about the books she’d been reading, and because she was (truly) the smartest person I’ve ever met, I was often just as quick to assume that any book that she’d enjoyed was probably over my head or out of my genre. As proud as I always was to hear that she and I were similar, I also couldn’t fight the instinct to do my own thing and prove that we weren’t exactly alike. I always saw Nana as more intellectual than I could ever be (though I totally own being smart!), and because of that, I could be stubborn about taking her recommendations. But guess what? Every. single. time. I got out of my own head and my own comfort zone and picked up the book she suggested, it was the best book I’d read in months. In the year since she’s been gone, I’ve tried to push myself in the same way she would have pushed me.
2. Books are for sharing and lending and talking about.
Like me, Nana was an introvert, but she believed that reading shouldn’t be a solitary activity. Books should be discussed and gifted and loved and lent! She was always generous with her own book collection, and as much as I like to hoard the titles I have on my shelf, I try to think of her whenever I have the opportunity to let a friend borrow something. I actually still have a stack of books that Nana gave me to read in the months before she died, and I’m so grateful. Since we shared such a love of reading, that stack (which I still haven’t touched, to be honest) is just as valuable to me as her beautiful jewelry.
3. When it comes to books, more is more.
When I was in sixth grade, my mom and I started living with Nana, but until then, one of the highlights of my summer vacations was the week I would spend at her house every year. She’d pick me up and drive me to New Jersey and we would enjoy long days together sitting out by her pool with our books and nights eating ice cream and watching PBS specials. One of the first stops of every summer trip was the local Barnes & Noble, where Nana would essentially let me loose to grab as many books as I could carry. She never questioned why I was choosing a particular book or if I really needed all six books. She loved spoiling the people she cared most about, and since we both adored books more than anything else, it was especially fun for her to spoil me with them. I tend to be a little more conservative about buying things, but I channel Nana whenever I’m in a bookstore debating whether or not to buy something! She did not believe in moderation… and when it comes to books, I can totally get on board with that.
4. Reading is best done outside and/or with snacks.
My favorite way to think about my grandmother is sitting out by her pool with a big bowl of cantaloupe or a big chocolate chip cookie on a plate. She could make a snack last for hours while she made progress in a book. Nana was a teacher and then a principal, so this is how she spent all of her summer days, even before she retired. She also loved nature, and she was always so happy sitting out on the deck of her house with her breakfast and a stack of newspapers (always The New York Times).
5. Don’t be afraid of the big book.
Nana always encouraged me to read above my grade level when I was a kid. As a little girl, I loved exploring her massive bookshelves and pulling off titles that sounded interesting. She never once told me that I was too young to read something. Thanks to her, I was reading She’s Come Undone in middle school and attempting to read James Herriot in elementary school. Maybe I wasn’t technically ready for those books at that time, but her encouragement gave me confidence. I can barely remember a time when I wasn’t at least trying to read adult titles, and I think that has a lot to do with my grandmother and her easy acceptance of my curiosity. She always gravitated toward biggggg tomes (the kind that I often wrote off as too intellectual when she’d recommend them to me as a grown-up!), and I like to think of her any time I embark on a lengthier volume myself.
6. When in doubt, buy the book.
Remember that whole thing about more is more and about never exercising moderation? Yeah, I just needed to drive that home. These days, I buy books to honor my grandmother, and I always laugh a little to myself when I realize that a recent purchase wouldn’t meet her approval. She believed that a book was a more worthwhile investment than anything else, and I like to think that counts even for “bad “ ones.
7. There is no better use for your free time than to read.
Throughout the seven years that I lived with Nana (through middle and high school), I could almost always count on her to be waiting for me when I got home from school. She retired as I was starting my freshman year, and even though giving up the career she loved was a real challenge for her, she eventually embraced the free time it afforded her by reading even more than she had before. During the mornings, she’d often be out walking her dogs and going to volunteer meetings at our local art museum, but in the afternoon, it was usually time to cuddle up with a good book. I’d find her with her legs thrown over the side of an overstuffed armchair, focused intently on whatever she was reading. She always had an afternoon coffee, which she often covered with a small glass plate (weird what you remember, right?). When I got home, she’d take a break so we could have a snack and catch up on our days. Watching her transition gracefully into retirement with the help of her books made me realize that spending free time with books is a surefire way to feed your brain, learn, and also have fun. I hope to spend just as much time reading when I retire someday!