I credit my love of reading in large part to my parents and my grandmother. I cannot recall a single point in my childhood that either my mother or father turned down a request to read a book. They read to me all the time, and made me want to master the skill myself. After I learned to read, what was once a social activity became very solitary. I am sad to say I was a bit of a snob - while my peers were enjoying the delights of Goosbumps, Animorphs, or Dragonriders of Pern, I was working my way through the works of Austen, Dickens, Hawthorne, and James. Don't get get me wrong, I loved them, but I think i was in serious danger of missing out on something. Enter my grandmother.
My grandmother (pictured left, 1946) is nothing short of phenomenal. At nearly 80, you are just as likely to find her moving flower beds in her yard (no, not the bulbs, the whole bed) or tearing out a wall as you are to find her reading in her living room. She radiates with industrious energy, and she brings that energy to her reading. When she reads, she reads. Anything. Everything. Quickly. And then she wants to talk about it; with anyone. Everyone. When I would visit her in the summers, she, my grandpa and I would all be sprawled on lawn furniture, porch swings, the floor, wherever, reading in the (relative) coolness of the Oklahoma/Arkansas evening.
It was then that she asked me why I liked reading only classics to the exclusion of everything else. Was it that I felt I should be reading only books that had 'worth'? (Well, in part, yes. I told you I was a snob.) For the first time I was forced to articulate why I liked reading the books that I did. We talked for a very long time. It turns out that I like talking about books with other people who have read them. Also, I love character-driven stories. I like getting caught up in the details of a person's life. And I love descriptions of anything. I want to know what the room looks like, what the chair feels like, what the air smells like. Are there flowers? What kinds of birds? Is there trash on the street? Description is my catnip.
A few hours later my grandmother gave me my very first Mary Stewart novel. It was a beat-up 1965 paperback of The Moon-Spinners, and it was love at first read. Mary Stewart is a naturalist, a geographer, and a keen observer of human nature. Yes, she writes romantic suspense novels; but there is so much more than that in them.
Mary Stewart is a world traveler, and it shows. The settings of her novels are brought to life in such a way that it's clear that she was as captivated with the world as she was intent on capturing it. She has taken me to Greece, and France, and Skye. She has taken me to a Lebanon that I can never physically visit; I have seen rare birds and flowers, lost cities and lost customs through her eyes.
Through the years my grandmother and I have worked very hard to collect all of her novels. A yard-sale here, a used and out-of-print bookstore there, a few thrift stores, a library sale and one German train station later and I am only missing three. Some are paperbacks from the 1960s, some are hardbacks from the 1970s, but they all have one thing in common - age and acidic paper. That's right - they are falling apart. That first copy of The Moon-spinners which so stole my heart now lies flat in a stack of flaking pages, wrapped with acid-free tissue paper on a shelf in the driest room of my house. Imagine my sheer joy and surprise, then, when I read Chachic's Book Nook's recent In My Mailbox post.
Look at these beauties!
According to the Mary Stewart Novels Blog, Hodder & Stoughton in the UK will be releasing these lovely new editions in March.
Mary Stewart was my gateway into popular fiction, my permission to read genre fiction. She brought me into the wonderfully varied world of books. She taught me to find the things I loved about the written word in all sorts of genres; to like a book because I find merit in it, not because someone else told me it was there. She wrote a lovely letter to Hodder & Stoughton about her journey as an author on the occasion of this re-release of her books. She ends with,
"Some half century later I am still with my dear Hodder and Stoughton, and can only add that I love the new cover style, and I hope that it will attract a new generation to read my books."
I hope so, too.