Bookworm’s Nook: “Reading makes life worthwhile by showing you what life can be.”

Bookworm’s Nook

Hello&Welcome Moira Allen!

Would you like to share a bit about yourself?

Since this is about reading, I’ll try to stick to my “reading” persona. I’m a writer, but I am a writer precisely because I love to read. C.S. Lewis once said that he wrote the books he wanted to read, and I always felt that was the perfect sentiment.

I’ve been writing professionally for a bit over 30 years, and hosting the website (one of the world’s largest sites for writers) for just over 13. Other passions include photography, Victorian ephemera, and Victorian magazines. But I would say that reading has always been, and probably always will be, my overriding passion.

I’ve been reading since about age 5. My family was, to put it mildly, “into” reading. Our house was full of books (as is mine today). Before I could read, my mother would read to me, so books and stories have been a part of my life for literally as long as I can remember.

For some reason, my mother also wasn’t willing to wait until I got into school for me to start reading, so she taught me at home with flash cards and “Dick and Jane” books. Thus “Dick and Jane” was literally the first book I ever read. I can still remember the feeling of finally “getting it” — when the flash cards in their little yellow plastic box at last began to make sense.

This had pros and cons. I got skipped a year in school because I could outread everyone in the 1st grade. Unfortunately this wasn’t so great from a social standpoint – being a year younger than everyone in your class makes a huge difference in 2nd grade! Also no one bothered to check to see if I could out-math everyone in the room — I couldn’t! But I can remember discovering the school library — mine, all mine! I also remember another student (in fact, a boy I had quite a crush on) introducing me to the concept that books had AUTHORS. Before that I just cruised for interesting titles; it hadn’t occurred to me to look for more books by an author that I liked.

So now I’m a book addict. I browse the shelves at Goodwill at least once a week. Last year we ran a calculation and figured that I read roughly one book every two days – about 180 per year. Unfortunately, I BUY about two books every THREE days — so I acquire more than twice as many as I can read! (Of course, some of those books are for my husband, so it’s not ENTIRELY my fault — but my fiction bookshelves have been double-stacked for years.)

Reading naturally led to writing. As a child I was always making up stories in my head (often when I should have been doing math). I didn’t write them down; I just “played them out.” But this involved a lot of “staring into space,” and if one did that in my house, it was generally assumed one had nothing to do, so one was put to work. I quickly found that if I hid behind a book, all was well; reading was ALWAYS considered a worthwhile activity. (Rarely would someone say, “Put the book down and go outside and play!”) I just had to remember to turn a page now and then…

Of course, making up stories in one’s head is a lot easier than writing them down, as I’ve found in later years. Putting those imaginary tales into words — turning the scenery one has visualized into text, for instance — isn’t quite so simple. But I hope to master that art eventually!! Works in progress: One novel in the first-draft stage (i.e., it now needs a “second” first draft”), several unfinished short stories, a memoir, and another writing book. It could be a busy year…

Do you remember your favorite places to read throughout the years?

I’ve never really even thought about having a “favorite place to read.” It’s wherever I can get decent light on a book! That being said, in junior high and high school I would nearly always contrive to spend lunch hour in a library. There was a display rack in our junior high library that I could sit behind for a measure of privacy and eat and read. In high school, the main city library was just a block away, so I’d go up there and sit in a window seat in the children’s section to have lunch and read (and maybe pick up a book on my way out). I did love libraries in those days, and we had very nice ones in Berkeley – one branch was on the way home when I walked, so it was as tempting then to stop in a library as it is today to stop in a bookstore.

Do you remember your first favorite paperback book? Do you remember the first e-book you purchased?

Well, my first “favorite” paperback book was the mystery novel “The Rasp,” by Philip MacDonald. I was four. If that sounds a bit odd, it’s because, at that point, I could not actually READ. But everyone else in my family spent lots of time reading, so I wanted to be like everyone else. I happened across this book in a box of old paperbacks that was being discarded, and it had something I recognized on the cover: A rasp. (My father did a lot of wood-working.) So I grabbed this book and carried it everywhere, much to the amusement of the rest of my family. It was a genuine “pocketbook,” and would fit nicely in my bathrobe pocket.

A few years ago I actually found a copy of that book and finally got around to reading it. It was a bit disappointing…

My first favorite paperback that I could actually READ was “The Hobbit.” I got it for Christmas when I was 6. I didn’t actually read it then – it was a bit too advanced – so my mother read it to the entire family, and we loved it. We all had the flu, I think – we usually did at Christmas! – so I remember lying in bed and listening to the story. I’ve read it many times since; my husband was quite amused that I could recite the words to the “Misty Mountains” poem during the movie.

The next best-loved paperbacks in my life were the Narnia series, given to me in dribbles by a relative . In those days they were hard to find in America, and these were the British Puffin editions – I don’t know where she got them! It took me years to finally lay hands on “The Horse and His Boy.” Those books became the most tattered in my collection. I also wanted to read all the books advertised in the back of these, which led me to another favorite, “The Weirdstone of Brisingamen,” by Alan Garner.

All of these books had an effect on what I was to write and to study later in life. Books like “The Hobbit” and the Narnia series taught me that “fantasy” wasn’t limited to fairy tales, to be discarded along with the toys of childhood. (As a child I dreamed of collecting the entire Andrew Lang colored fairy book set, something I finally did manage to do as an adult!) Real adults wrote, and read, fantasy! If they could, so could I! But the Alan Garner books (and also the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander) turned me in another direction – they were based on “real” folklore, so I began researching the folkloric roots of those books. My father (a Swede) had given me a book on Norse mythology, which I found far more interesting than the usual Greek and Roman myths, and this led me into Celtic and Welsh folklore. I got my BA in anthropology, with a specialization in folklore.

What book has most inspired you, brought you to tears, or changed your perspective?

That’s almost an impossible question to answer. So many books have done all of the above. It’s tempting to fall back on the stock Christian answer and say “The Bible,” but in a way that’s not entirely true; my life and perspective had to change before I could read and appreciate the Bible in the first place.

So I’m going to fall back on the books I’ve mentioned above, first and foremost. I do think that the Narnia series certainly paved the way for a spiritual mindset; in a way I resent the way the church has now co-opted these books, because in the past, they were just “good books” that any child could enjoy. Now they are so loudly trumpeted as “Christian books” that this may very well put off kids (or adults) who would otherwise find them wonderful. But as I said above, reading these and Tolkien definitely led me into a path of writing and study that I might not otherwise have followed.

But thinking about books that have made me cry, I have to say that the all-time most sniffle-inducing book I think I ever read was “The Chestry Oak,” by Kate Seredy. Although this is considered a children’s book, as a child I never really understood it or even liked it that much. Coming back to it as an adult, with a bit more knowledge about WWII, well… I don’t think I stopped crying through the entire book. It’s an amazing book – all of Seredy’s books are.

Have you ever found a book so disturbing, that you couldn’t finish it, or had to leave it and come back?

Now, here one has to ask, “define ‘disturbing.'” There are many different ways that one could define “disturbing.” There are books that are disturbing because the subject matter is upsetting, but it’s upsetting because it’s genuine and deals with issues that we don’t care to think about. A book like “Sophie’s Choice” might fall into this category. Such a book would certainly be disturbing and uncomfortable, but I have no objection to it on those grounds.
Then there are books that are “disturbing” because the author is deliberately trying to upset or unsettle the reader — but not because the situation is real or genuine. I remember reading a Christian novel (I can’t remember the name now) in which, at the very beginning, a young woman was brutally raped and murdered. This happened “off stage,” so to speak, but what disturbed me was that the author seemed to have created this character, and written about this event, simply to “set up” the events that were to follow (which, of course, had to do with the girl’s father eventually coming to terms with forgiveness). I didn’t like the casual way in which a character was “invented” and then just disposed of, the way such a brutal and tragic event was basically trivialized, simply to make a particular “point” to the reader. I didn’t ever finish the book; I just skimmed to the (obvious) end and put it aside.

Another kind of “disturbing,” and I’d say it’s related to the second, is a book that makes me feel “unclean.” There are books that have a high “ick” factor. It’s not so much what happens – in fact another author might present the exact same events without making one feel the same way. I found that John Saul’s books made me feel this way – possibly because no matter what the characters overcame, things always ended up going badly at the end. I used to love Stephen King, but eventually I began to question why I was bothering. His strength in the beginning was strong, very real, very human, very “identifiable” characters. But gradually his protagonists diminished to rather obnoxious, uninteresting people that one would tend to hope one would NOT identify with, and eventually I gave up. I made it through “Misery,” but put “Tommyknockers” down halfway through.

OK, that calls to mind an example of “disturbing” but not “ick” — absolutely the most frightening story, I feel, that Stephen King wrote was his “Apt Pupil” in the collection “Different Seasons.” It was disturbing because it was plausible, and it made one look at possibilities in the human psyche that one doesn’t want to acknowledge. But it wasn’t written just to make one squirm; it was written to make one think (and maybe to wish one could STOP thinking about it). That same book had one of his best and most moving stories, “The Body” (made into the ho-hum movie “Stand by Me”). Contrasted to those is his later (or perhaps earlier) novella “Thinner,” about dull characters in an icky situation that only makes one think, “Why did I waste five hours reading this?”

When reading, what types of characters do you find yourself relating to more than others?

I think perhaps it’s easier to describe the types of characters that I do NOT find myself relating to. I read a lot of mysteries these days, and I find that I’m instantly put off, for example, by a protagonist who is foul-mouthed and obsessed with sex (which seems to be a fairly common type in the more “trendy” novel). Possibly I’m an over-conservative prude, but when a character walks onto the page and immediately punctuates every sentence with the F-word, I start thinking that the WRITER is trying to show how “hip and with it” he or she is.
So I suppose that I identify with characters that I would either like to be or like to know!

Who are some of your favorite supporting characters? Antagonists?

Well, I suppose the hobbit Sam is the all-time best side-kick! When it comes to antagonists, I actually tend to start thinking in terms of movies rather than books. To become a “favorite” antagonist, one has to be three-dimensional, and that’s hard to find. A faceless “Dark Lord” has difficulty becoming a “favorite” antagonist (even though he’s such a popular one) because there’s no personality there to begin with.

Are there books that you find yourself revisiting? (Either in your mind or literally picking up the book to reread it again and again).

There are many, though I try to keep my “rereading” down these days. I don’t know how many times I’ve reread The Lord of the Rings, but I’m sure there are sections I could recite in my sleep. I actually haven’t read it in years, and I wondered at that, until I read a Terry Pratchett essay, in which he pointed out that he had eventually stopped rereading it because it had become so internal to him that he didn’t HAVE to read it anymore. I think that’s the way I feel about it too. I can pretty much just replay any scene I want in my mind without having to pick up the book anymore. I’m the same way with the Narnia series; I haven’t reread those in quite a few years but could probably recite passages from memory. Another series that I read many times was Mary Stewart’s “Crystal Cave” series (which also, I think, profoundly influenced my interest in folklore and Arthurian “history”).

If you could introduce two characters from two different books you have read, who would they be and why?

One could play with this forever, I imagine. Hmm. What if Sherlock Holmes meet Hercule Poirot? Holmes likes to go over everything with a magnifying glass; Poirot likes to sit and close his eyes and think. Who would arrive at the correct solution first? Would they argue? I think they would probably have the greatest disdain for one another, but it would be interesting to find out. (Of course, Hastings and Watson would just commiserate with one another over tea over the annoyances of being the sidekicks to great minds that are devoid of modesty.)

What book would love to see made into a television series?

That’s hard to answer, because so many TV series based on books have turned out so badly! There seems to be two ways that a series can go. Either it’s so slavishly devoted to following the script (e.g., most BBC mysteries, like Poirot) that it becomes terribly dull, or it uses the story as merely an “inspiration” and comes up with something horribly, appallingly different.

In the latter category, a British TV series based on the Hamish MacBeth mysteries (by M.C. Beaton) comes to mind – it was absolutely awful! I didn’t make it through the first episode. Conversely, I enjoyed the Geraldine McEwan “Miss Marple” series immensely — until I actually started reading the books! Well, the best that can be said there is that the episodes were SO far from the originals that they really couldn’t even be thought of as “spoilers.”

All too often, turning a book into a series simply means taking a character, a setting and a premise, and then spinning off new, unrelated scripts. For example, if you were to take Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone and make a series, you’d have… a female PI in California in the 1980’s, solving cases. I doubt you could even use the books as a basis for scripts, as they’re too complex. It could probably make a very good series, but it wouldn’t be the books.

One “series” that has been done many times, of course, is Sherlock Holmes. I love both the UK’s “Sherlock” and the US’s “Elementary,” both of which set Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century, with computers and cell phones. (I also like the irony that, in “Sherlock,” Watson actually could be wounded in Afghanistan, which was, of course, where the original Watson was wounded!) Both shows give a nod to the original stories; “Sherlock,” in fact, does try to base its scripts loosely upon an original story, radically changed and updated. But they are, at the root, utterly NEW stories based on the character and premise. (Can’t even really say “setting,” because “Elementary” is set in New York, and of course neither are set in “gaslight London.”) But I find those series far more entertaining than the more faithful, but plodding, BBC series.

All that being said, I’m reading a very entertaining series of YA books by Ally Carter, on a girl’s school for spies – and it really just cries out to be made into a movie and/or TV series. The characters, premise and setting offer endless possibilities, though I imagine this would end up on the Disney channel…

What is your least favorite book to movie adaptation?

There have been so many adaptations, so many of which have been spectacular failures from the standpoint of anyone who loved the book, so I’ll stick to recent history. I’d say the most recent, MOST disappointing adaptation was “Prince Caspian.” As I said before, I adore this series of books. While the producers took some liberties with “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” it was still sufficiently true to both the plot and theme of the book that readers could forgive a few excesses. So I’m sure I’m not the only reader who had high hopes for the second book, only to come away wondering, “WHAT were you THINKING?”

I confess I’m also quite disappointed with the second installment of “The Hobbit,” and for similar reasons. The first installment was, again, quite faithful to the story, bringing to life even minor scenes and touches that one didn’t expect to be given screen-time. It warmed the hearts of Hobbit fans, to see the world and those events brought so beautifully to life. So I’m sure we were all looking forward to a similar experience in Part II — only to find that the producer, this time, seemed to regard the “story” (as in the book) to be a bit of a nuisance that got in the way of the story HE wanted to tell. His story bore little resemblance to the one hobbit fans came to the theaters to see. (We had, what, five minutes at most of the spiders?) Of course, purists have a bit of difficulty having orcs in “The Hobbit” at all, but in Part II they seem to have turned into Ninja orcs. Since when are orcs “stealthy”?

Both of these are examples of producers or studios forgetting what is bringing in a large percentage of the audience to the theater in the first place. Sure, some folks have never read “Prince Caspian” or “The Hobbit” and are just going to see a potentially exciting movie. But a huge percentage are coming precisely BECAUSE they loved the books and want to see their favorite books on screen — and when those stories are butchered, viewers aren’t happy. Studios need to remember that movies like this bring out audiences who may not NORMALLY go to movies. The audience who comes for the next round of explosions and Ninja orcs isn’t going to stop going to movies because Part II of The Hobbit was disappointing — but the non-movie-going audience is going to shrug and go home to its books and DVDs. (And given the poor reviews of “Prince Caspian,” it didn’t go over terribly well with the non-reading viewers either!)

What are ten words that describe the way reading makes you feel – where reading takes you, as you drift away with the characters and their stories?

Reading makes life worthwhile by showing you what life can be.

OK, that’s 11, sue me.

Haha!! So much fun, Moira! Really enjoyed learning more about you as a reader/writer. Thank you for stopping by Bookworm’s Nook.

  1. Very interesting. I don’t remember a lot of my book ‘firsts’ but I do remember reading “The Good Earth” by Pearl S. Buck at a relatively early age and loving it. I still love it today. My mother taught my brother and me to read before we got to school too. It gave me ‘status’ in the 1st grade. *lol*

  2. I remember loving Beverly Cleary books when I was growing up.

    I remember reading “The Shack” and having to put it down because it got so sad that I couldn’t finish it. I never picked it back up, I might have too now.

    I will have to say that Just Beneath the Surface II was a great eye opener. I will let you know how I felt about that book very soon. I loved it but at the same time it made me think about how many people deal with unhealthy relationship including teenagers.

    • Thank you so much, Christy. I know you’re busy, so it means a lot that you are reading/read it. Thank you.

      It is pretty dark – but like you said, it’s meant to be a huge eye opener. Love and obsession, helping and controlling, different things.

  3. As a kid I was an avid reader–to the point where I often avoided social situations so I wouldn’t have to stop reading! Now, I don’t read books as much, which is a bummer. I have to get used to the fact that I can’t sit down and read for hours like I did as a kid. With three kids of my own, I just don’t have time! But I love love love watching them learn to love books and reading. So magical.

  4. I am a proud book hoarder. I too browse the Goodwill book section!! Not as often as you do, unfortunately (my husband would say fortunately lol). I love to read. There is nothing greater!

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