Reading about Reading

For my last book club meeting, we all read biographies – any biography. While I had enjoyed some biographies in the past (I loved David McCullough’s biography of John Adams), I don’t really gravitate toward them; usually if I am reading one it is because someone else chose it for book club. I hemmed and hawed over my choice until I spotted a book that caught my eye: The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie by Wendy McClure. It’s more of a memoir than a biography, but to me it was close enough to be on topic. Better yet, it was of high interest to me because it was essentially someone else talking about her reading life.

That was, in fact, the main draw for me. Almost as much as I like to read, I like to talk about reading, hear about reading, and read about reading. And discussions of childhood reading are probably my favorites. I like to know what drove other people to read what they did, and why they loved their favorite childhood books. A couple of years ago, I reviewed Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. It’s an even more direct reading memoir, and very entertaining.

It’s actually somewhat funny that I felt drawn to The Wilder Life, most notably (confession) because I did not really read the Little House books. My mom read Little House in the Big Woods and Little House on the Prairie to me and my sister, but I never read any of the rest of them. Most of my Little House love came courtesy of Melissa Gilbert and Michael Landon, because I loved the TV show. Yes, I know there was actually no Albert and that no one really blew up the town of Walnut Grove. And actually, now that I know more about the books and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s real life courtesy of Wendy McClure, I realize that the books really sugarcoated some things, too.

So McClure’s reading journey was not really like my own, but was nonetheless of high interest. In her memoir, she decides to recapture her Little House reading life (or as she calls it, her “Laura World”) by visiting every place the Ingalls family ever lived, both the nearly forgotten places and borderline theme park-y ones. She also seeks out authentic experiences, churning her own butter, spending a night in a covered wagon/tent (during a scary storm, no less), and buying more than one bonnet. The highlight of the book for me was actually the hilarious passage when she drags her husband on a homesteading type weekend, thinking they will learn old school housewifery skills – and finds out that they have wandered into a den of religious fanatics who are preparing for the end of days. That alone would have made the book for me.

But when it comes down to it, I just like to hear about other people’s reading experiences. A whole book’s worth is solidly entertaining for me. And I guess that just makes sense; I’ve been assuming for the last decade and a half that everyone wants to hear about what I read. What about you? Do you like to read about reading? Do you have any good reading memoirs to recommend? And (dare I ask?) were you a real Little House fan?

– Blythe Barnhill

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13 Responses to Reading about Reading

  1. LinnieGayl says:

    The McClure book sounds like fun. I did read some of the Little House series as a girl and liked the first few. I don’t remember when I stopped, but it was because things were too grim for me. I guess I was lucky Wilder sugar-coated things. I probably never would have made it past the first few pages.

    And I just downloaded Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading. It sounds exactly like something I’d enjoy.

    I can’t say I’ve read any straight memoirs of reading experiences, but one of my favorites about girl sleuths — The Girl Sleuth by Babbie Ann Mason — does include a fair amount of her experiences with various series.

  2. LinaGimble says:

    Perfect! Thank you for posting this! My sister was a LIW fanatic. Read each book three or four times and would quote them (to annoy us? It worked.) She reads all kinds of, but our tastes are a bit different. Now I have the perfect Christmas gift for her.

    Sorry to bring up the C word in October.


  3. Lynn M says:

    I was (am!) a total Little House fan. When you talk about who you’d like to meet in Heaven, Laura Ingalls Wilder is at the top of my list. It started when one of my grade school teachers read “Little House in the Big Woods” to our class, and I’ve been reading one or more of each of the books in the series every year ever since. My favorites are actually the final two of the traditional series (“Little Town on the Prairie” and “These Happy Golden Years”), which actually introduced me to the world of romance. Reading McClure’s memoir was entertaining because I, too, have visited some of the Little House sites, although I’m not even close to as hard core as she is. I did force my family to come with me to find the cemetery where LIW and her husband, Almanzo, are buried. Oddly, I never fell in love with the Anne of Green Gables books, which I believe are probably pretty similar and aimed at the same kind of reader.

  4. Maggie AAR says:

    I’m a Little House on the Prairie fan. My mom is a HUGE one. She has actually been to several historical sites dealing the Ingalls/Wilder families.

  5. Marianne McA says:

    I quite enjoyed Susan Hill’s ‘Howards End is on the Landing’. She, while looking for a particular book, discovered that she had dozens of books on her shelves that she had never read, and many others she wanted to reread, so decided that for a year she would not buy any new books. (She also resolved to limit her time on the internet saying it “can have a pernicious effect on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time …”)
    I by no means always agreed with her tastes, but I like that kind of book-about-books – it’s like browsing someone else’s shelves. I’m less keen on books about particular authors, especially when they’re authors I loved as a child: I suppose in some distant part of my brain I knew that Elinor Brent Dyer’s descriptions of places sounded like travel brochures, but it broke my heart a little bit to realise she’d never been to the countries she set her ‘Chalet School’ books in. And it might break a little again, if I found out that Laura Ingalls Wilder had altered reality too much.
    I haven’t read the ‘Little House’ books in years, but I did love them. Something will bring a scene from the books to mind from time-to-time, and I’ll remember Laura’s mystification when she was given an orange (was that at a birthday party?), or the time when they slaughtered the pig and played with the bladder – or even find myself pondering her claim that her dad had been able to put his hands round her mother’s waist when they were first married. (How tight must her corsets have been? I didn’t question it as a child, but it seems a bit barbaric now.)

  6. farmwifetwo says:

    Yes, I still have all the books and one by Rose Wilder Lane. I also have one of the biographies written about her life.

  7. leslie says:

    Little House on the Prairie was my first novel. I was eight.

  8. LeeF says:

    I had read the review of The Wilder Life: My Adventures in the Lost World of Little House on the Prairie in the Dallas Morning News and was delighted when my little local library actually had it. Checked it out and very much enjoyed it. I think Wendy has a great literary voice in this book- self-deprecating, adventurous, insightful.

    Yep, I am a Little House fan, have read all the “other” Laura Ingalls Wilder books, including Roses’- it’s such a wonderful extension of my childhood reading. And count me as one who enjoys reading about reading.

  9. Blythe says:

    I’m glad others have enjoyed The Wilder Life as well. I think it shouldn’t be missed if you’re a LHOP fan.

    Other weird thing I learned in the book: Rose Wilder Lane was an early Libertarian activist.

  10. Kathy B says:

    I’m also a big fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I still have the first hardback book I ever received as a child on my bookshelves – “Little House on the Prairie”. It was given to me for Christmas in 1961 and I still treasure it to this day.

  11. Susan/DC says:

    I loved, loved, loved the LIW books when I was a girl, and some of the descriptions remain with me to this day. For example, when she describes doing the laundry, including having to make their own soap, my 8 year old self was astonished at how time-consuming the process was and that they couldn’t just go to a store to buy soap. It made me much more appreciative of modern conveniences.

    If you want to read another book about reading, you could try Maureen Corrigan’s “Don’t Bother Me, I’m Reading”. She’s a book critic for NPR.

  12. Kayne says:

    There are some Laura Ingalls Wilder Museums. I visited the one in De Smet, South Dakota. Your biography book club theme sounds fun.

  13. Carol Lowe says:

    I was (and am) a Little House fan. I’m sure I have read the entire series. It’s strange that “Farmer Boy” which is Laura’s husband Almanzo’s book is my favorite. I have visited the home in Mansfield, Mo where Laura and Almanzo ended their days. She wrote a column for the local newspaper about her busy life as a farmwife. Great series of books!

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