Sunday, October 13, 2013

My Life Story in Books (Stephanie Kuehnert)

I always begin any presentation I do about my writing by saying that I became a writer because I was a big Ramona books by Beverly Cleary, the Babysitter’s Club books everything by Judy Blume). I took out the entire Nancy Drew collection in one summer and then started on an adult mystery series my mom was reading, The Cat Who Books, mysteries solved by Siamese Cats. Best thing ever.
reader. I devoured books as a child. I always won prizes for reading and reviewing the most books during my local library’s summer reading program. I found books I loved and read them over and over again (especially the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the

I definitely read up because by 10, I’d been through all those Judy Blue books about a billion times and I couldn’t wait for the next Sweet Valley novel (Twins or High, I read them both, though the high school drama of the Wakefield sisters was way more interesting.) I wandered into the adult section discovered V.C. Andrews because man, those old keyhole covers of hers were cool. Once I’d read through all of her twisted and creepy worlds, I was ready to be seriously scared so I raided my dad’s Stephen King collection. (I hung out in my parents’ bedroom a lot in the summer because they had the only air conditioner—selfish parents!) I also read all of the Lord of the Rings books in a month and checked out every Piers Anthony and Ursula Le Guin book I could find. Oh and as a big Star Trek: The Next Generation nerd, I read all of those books, too. Imzadi was the best because it was sexy. Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, romance, contemporary, I loved it all. I didn’t have a ton of friends and I went through my share of bullying, so whether  the world was fantastical or horrifying, it was my escape.

I didn’t limit myself to fiction either. I spent one summer dipping into my mother’s complete works of Shakespeare. Her shelves were also where I first learned about feminist theory and discovered one of my all-time favorite big books, Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes. In high school, I read a lot more poetry and non-fiction about politics, feminism, and psychology as well as Anais Nin’s diaries and memoirs like Girl, Interrupted. My fiction of choice was The Bell Jar and I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. I was going through some shit that made me feel like a crazy girl so I wanted to read about institutions. Oh and since there were a lot of drugs in my life, Trainspotting was kind of my bible, too. I loved Francesca Lia Block because her characters were haunted but beautiful and strong. I loved Poppy Z. Brite because her characters were haunted, beautiful, and self-destructive. I read to understand, to try to survive.


College is when reading slows down for a lot of people, but not me. I majored and went to grad school for Creative Writing so my life stayed filled with books. I read more of the classics then (and revisited some I’d read in high school): Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, The Grapes of Wrath became my all-time favorite book, and even though we were only assigned part of it, I read all of War and Peace (though my friend and I joked that it would have been better if it had just been Peace and Princesses because the war parts were kind of hard to get through.) I also discovered a bunch of contemporary authors that I adored: Dorothy Allison, Joe Meno, John McNally, Louise Erdrich (actually a rediscovery because she’d been on my dad’s shelf), Toni Morrison (another rediscovery because she’d been on my mom’s), Jhumpa Lahiri. I was extra lucky because I had jobs that gave me downtime to read—I was a work study in the Fiction Writing Department office, so when I wasn’t answering phones or making copies, they were more than happy to see me reading, and I was a dayshift bartender, so I read until customers came in. This allowed me time for the books I chose in addition to assigned reading, especially during the summer, when I regularly reread the books that were out in the Harry Potter series in preparation for the next release.


After grad school, however, I fell into a reading drought. I was working full-time and writing when I got home.  Bedtime has always been my key reading time, but I was exhausted, and um, I’d also met a boy. Then my books came out and I was teaching and bartending and freelancing to support myself, working day and night. I kept up with the authors I adored, buying and reading the new Melissa Marr, Jeri Smith-Ready, and Sara Zarr as soon as they came out, but a lot of the books I was buying were just sitting in a pile on my nightstand or book shelves unread. Sometimes I had moments where I was my old self again. I remember starting Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott during a slow night at the bar. My shift ended at 2 am and the boy who was my fiancĂ© by that point was always fast asleep by then. I couldn’t put that book down though, so I brought it into the bathroom with me and read until I’d finished at 4:30 am. Similar things happened with Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Harmonic Feedback by Tara Kelly, and Don’t Breathe a Word by Holly Cupala.  But they were rare exceptions in a dry spell that stretched five years.

I didn’t know what to do. I felt incredibly guilty about all the unread books that I knew were amazing that languished in piles around my house, so guilty that it was paralyzing. But then at the end of last year one of my best friends from high school posted a blog about her reading log for the year. Like me, she’d been a voracious reader since childhood, and now a mother to two small children, I knew her life was as hectic as mine, but she was able to keep reading. I should too, I thought. And her log reminded me a little bit of those summer reading programs at the library I’d loved at the kid, so I decided to start keeping a list at the back of my journal. Just the name of the book and the dates I’d read it, no reviews or anything like that because I knew too much work would dissuade me.

On average I’ve read four books a month this year. I fell off completely in June because of my cross-country move and it’s slowed down a little bit since then because I’m adjusting to a full-time job (but also because I’m reading Cassandra Clare’s books and they’re huge).  Once I started reading regularly, I remembered how much better it made me feel. It was my cozy escape again. It even helped me sleep better—well except when I couldn’t put a book down (Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt and 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma), but I’m sure my fellow  bookworms would agree that’s a totally legitimate reason for losing sleep.


What about you? What books defined your life? And have you had any reading slumps? How’d you get through them?

3 comments:

  1. Love this post. You are so right that behind every writer is a reader. And also, sadly, that sometimes living the writing life makes it difficult to read as much as you'd like. Isn't awesome though when even now we can fall into a story and stay up all night reading?

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  2. Our reading tastes were so similar growing up, Steph!

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  3. I have the same problem of reading until all hours if I adore a book. Not my hubby's favorite hobby of mine. :-) I read all the same stuff you did growing up too!! Who can forget Elizabeth's car accident and her going after Bruce? Love!

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