The Reader

by Jane Porter

I'm book crazy. When I'm not writing or with my kids, I'm usually in a bookstore, on the internet researching or buying books, or at the grocery store standing in front of a magazine rack reading ads and reviews for soon to be released books. Frankly, it's an addiction. I've had this problem since a child when a free afternoon meant a bike ride to the local library where I packed my plastic basket on my Schwinn with as many books as I could fit. I'll loan my books out, donate novels to a woman's shelter, or give a beloved edition as a gift, but I never sell my books. I can't. Maybe technically they're not part of my family, but they come damn close.

Cover of Flirting with Forty by Jane Porter
Back when I was still teaching my students knew the surest way to incur Miss Porter's wrath was to step on a book, break a spine, or carelessly crush pages. It never took long for one or more kids to chant when they saw book abuse in use, "Be nice to books. Books are our friends." Or worse, they'd chorus my oft-repeated expression, "When Miss Porter is buried they'll write 'Words Were Her Friends' on her tombstone."

Where does this passionate love affair with books come from? I'm certain it's a combination of DNA and environment. My mom and dad loved books so much they started their own book club in the 60's before book clubs were the social event they are now. As kids, my older brother and I used to pool our money to buy the Oz series at the downtown toy store. My older brother, Thom, is now a professor in North Carolina, following in my professor father's footsteps and if you ask me to think of him, I immediately picture his hair, and the top of his head, because that's all we ever saw of him -- head bent over a book, nose buried deep. He did come up for air. But rarely. It's still a joy and a surprise to see that he *has* an actual face.

How do you recognize a book lover? That's easy. They're the ones that only want more books. True book lovers crave books -- and bookshelves -- but it's much easier giving a Barnes & Noble or Borders gift card than a bookshelf, even if the bookshelf comes in a box from IKEA. I buy my bookshelves by the half dozen. Every time I move, I'm at another unfinished oak furniture store buying 6-8 seven foot numbers that get boxed in, cased with molding, bolted to the wall, trimmed and painted and new house is immediately a home. My dining room is my library. It's not a dining table in the middle of the room but my "reference table". I've worked hard over the years to find the right paint for my dining/room library walls and have settled on a rich tomato red and a wonderful dark cocoa. Both colors look great with food, books, sunlight, and candlelight. And if dinner conversation is ever lacking, I can always lean over, pull out a volume and save me-if not my guests-from boredom.

My dining room isn't my only library. My bedroom holds another collection, and the playroom has my children's books (Five Little Peppers, Elsie Dinsmore, Pollyanna and those were just the ones passed to me from my grandmother), along with my father's favorite dog, military and Zane Grey series. Moving books is expensive and time consuming but there's nothing like unpacking the boxes and discovering each book all over again.

Why are books so addictive?

I think books and reading put die-hard readers into the zone -- that flow of optimal experience. I know when I read -- and this is true, it's not just colorful prose my brain hums. It really does. It's happy. It sings, and zings, and does really euphoric things so that I feel flooded with endorphins and a rush of serotonin. Reading just creates a sense of incredible good will within me. Now, scientists might argue that nothing is flooding my brain but delusions of grandeur, but I know this: reading feels good. It's one of the first things I learned to do as a small child, and it was the thing that comforted me most as a dreamy little girl and then a painfully awkward teenager. Books took me places, allowed me to travel the world, slip into other lives, enjoy new experiences, and peek into other peoples' hearts and dreams. Books never made me feel less than, and even complex literary works were a whisper of delight. I might not understand everything (or very much) but just the diction, the voice of skilled writers, the glimpse into brilliant minds made me hope for a life not yet lived, a future where I could go anyplace and be anything.

To this day nothing is as exciting as a book yet to be read. The promise. The premise. The discovering waiting for me.

Books make me feel rich. Books make me feel blessed. Books make me feel beautiful.

When I was young and struggling to pick a career and wavering between being a prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet (it was hard to get to Russia from Visalia, California) and a wise and wonderful librarian with cardfiles, and reference volumes and the Dewey Decimal system at her fingertips, I really couldn't pick. Ballet with its gorgeous costumes and Russian composers and stages and red velvet curtains captured my imagination, but the library, that was a totally different pleasure. Libraries are cool and mysterious, lined with endless shelves with every kind of book imaginable. To this day I can remember the afternoon light streaming through the Visalia library's leaded windows, the golden diffused light, the dust whirls and the big oak tables with the even bigger oak reading chairs. People walked around the turn of the century library with a sense of importance. Knowledge was a marvelous things and I was there with books and librarians and others who loved words, too.

I've been a teacher, shared my passion for books with pre-teens and teens, but nothing prepared me for the life of a writer where getting the words down right is both a joy and a curse. Obsessed with stories the way I am, you'd thinking writing would come easy but my heroes are Bronte, Austen, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Wharton and James. With these as my celebrities and saints, how can I ever find peace as a writer? How can I ever say anything new?

No, there's no peace for me as a writer, for the act of writing is one of questions and frustrations, challenge and bewilderment, work and more work (and God, yes, all that sweat is for commercial fiction!) but so it is. Writing is about craft and I will never be good enough or smart enough as a writer. I will always be hoping, struggling, striving. But the reader is complete. The reader in me is here, and the reader knows what to do with a book.

You sit, you open the cover, and as your eye settles on Chapter One, page one, you exhale slowly, deeply, relax and begin. Again. And it's a jump into life, a launch into the world, a grand adventure is about to take place.

Thus the reader is born, made and nurtured.

To all the writers -- thank you for the books. To all the readers -- save me a spot on the couch because I want to be there with you.

Novelist Jane Porter has been an english teach and holds an MA in Writing from the University of San Francisco. Jane now lives in Bellevue, Washington with her two young sons but she still feels like a small town girl from California at heart. Her first published novel, The Italian Groom, sold to Harlequin Presents in 2000. Since then, Jane has been prolific, penning more than 20 novels. She was a finalist for the prestigious RITA award from Romance Writers of America in both 2002 and 2003. In 2005, Jane took a more literary turn than with her previous work, using the backdrop of San Francisco to look at the complex relationships between mothers, daughters and the men they love in her novel, The Frog Prince. Jane's latest novel, Flirting With Forty, is set in Seattle and Hawaii. Her next book, Like Everybody Else, will be released next fall from 5 Spot/Warner Books.

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