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The Unexpected Reader

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My father is not the sort of man most people envision as a reader. His family lived in small Midwestern town that had once been home to thriving coal and zinc industries. But mines eventually run dry, and by the time my father and his nine brothers and sisters came along, the town didn’t offer much in the way of employment. The family was less than poor. It didn’t help that my grandfather died when dad was sixteen, leaving him the oldest of the children still at home. Since grandma couldn’t work, he did what any dutiful son would do and worked long hours after school to supplement what little government aid the family received.

The family didn’t have the money to pay for him to go to college, but he was stubborn, hardworking, and absolutely, irrevocably brilliant. He earned a scholarship at a community college, and later, years after I had come along, he worked his way through his bachelor’s degree. Despite never having time, or money, or an ideal family life, he always read.

I’m not sure how he got that love of reading. It seemed innate, a natural part of him that loved stories and the places they could take him. Maybe it was a form of escapism. Maybe it was exercise for an expansive mind. Maybe it was because he himself was a story teller; he could always weave a fiction so real that I could never quite tell what was truth and what wasn’t. Regardless of the why behind it, he always read.

First, horror. He collected novels about monsters that might have been men and men who might have been monsters. Then, fantasy. He kept shelves of books with covers so bright and intricate that I traced their designs for years before I was old enough to read about the dragons they contained. Gothic romance. When I was fifteen or so, he gave me a leather bound copy of the Brontë sisters’ works. After I finally opened the cover, I found an inscription written years ago; when he was nineteen, the book had been given as a gift to him, and he had kept it kept it safe until he had given it to me.

Today he still isn’t the sort of person people envision as a reader. He still works long hours. He still is haunted by the specter of poverty. But he also is the person who has dragged me kicking and screaming into the era of ebooks. He also still reads piles of books large enough to frighten most English teachers. He also still weaves fictions so real that I don’t always know when he is telling me the truth.

I’ve written before about how the women in my family always wrote, but I think my father’s reading influences me more. It feels fragile. It also feels powerful. Society doesn’t think that impoverished boys grow up to be readers, but sometimes they do. Sometimes they are born readers and only need the opportunity to have a book in hand.

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25 thoughts on “The Unexpected Reader

      1. I agree. It can be the humblest of circumstances, and yet the power and energy of someone living authentically has significant impact on the people around them. Thanks for sharing. I’m still searching for that balance in my blog. Your post inspired me.

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  1. This is such a beautiful, inspiring story, Kristen! I think it’s amazing that your father found time to read despite working such long hours. It’s difficult even for people who work normally hours and don’t have families, but to make time for it and offer it to you is truly admiral. You are very lucky to have a father like him, Kristen. ^.^

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  2. What a beautiful post. I have a similar story with my own Dad, who grew up in fairly impoverished circumstances and left school at 12 to work. He served in WW2 and after the war worked several jobs while raising a family and studying at teacher’s college. He had always loved to read and always told us stories when we were little, usually ones he had made up! He is the reason I developed my love of books and reading, and the reason I became a writer and storyteller, too.

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    1. Thank you. It always amazes me what paths other people’s lives take. I can hardly imagine people leaving school at 12 to work, but I know it happened all of the time. It sounds like in spite of everything, your dad had a great imagination and way with words.

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  3. Beautifully written. Also with every line I can see a daughter’s love and respect for her father! I feel that often love for books and reading is innate. I have seen a lot of people exposed to books and enough money to buy them, but books are the last thing they resort to. I personally love books and my ideal job would be that I get paid to read 😉

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  4. This reminds me so much of my Grandmother, she didn’t finish middle school but she loved poetry and song, I know her love of poetry is what inspired my mother and in turn it inspired me. I’m sure though…that at the time most would have only seen my grandmother as a poor Black house maid and not someone who loved to read poetry. I do feel that some people do feel the power of words deep in their soul and when that happens, it certainly is a type of magic. I’m so glad you wrote this about your father. Let’s all share the love of reading and writing to future generations.-DV

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    1. I’m so glad that your grandmother passed on those passions to you and your mother. Society can so often put people in little boxes and completely ignore who they are as fully formed individuals.

      And I agree; the way some people react to words really is a type of magic.

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