My Grandma Ted was a working class woman. Her husband was a textile factory loom fixer and she was a secretary. They raised my mom and uncle, scraping for every cent. A whiz at shorthand, Grandma’s boss once asked her to take notes at a business meeting at an expensive hotel. When she went to the restroom before the meeting, she discovered that the stalls were locked and required a nickel in the coin slot before they could be opened.
Grandma didn’t have a nickel, but she did have to use the toilet. She crawled beneath the stall door in order to reach it. In the process, this lovely woman, a lady to the core, ripped one of her nylon stockings. She had no choice but to enter the meeting room with an obvious tear in her hose.
She may not have looked the part the day she walked into that meeting, but Grandma Ted, a high school graduate, was a literate woman. The bookshelf in my grandparents’ Allentown apartment held short story collections and Book-of-the-Month-Club editions of classic and best selling novels. Which means reading was a very high priority in her limited budget.
One of my most treasured possessions from Grandma Ted’s belongings is a navy blue, gold-embossed three ring binder entitled Adventures in the Arts. Published by the Bureau of Business Practice in 1966, its tabs bear the labels Literature, Music, Painting and “Archit/Sculp.” The contents appear to have been distributed monthly in packet form. I picture my grandmother at her kitchen table after receiving a new packet in the mail, separating the little illustrated essays, one for each category, and placing them in their respective notebook sections.
Grandma didn’t go to college, but she never stopped learning.
She set a great example for me. In the years between dropping out of college, getting married and having two children, Grandma Ted’s notebook, various bibliographies, my own Book-of-the-Month Club membership and the legendary Cahill and Company Catalog guided my reading choices. Eventually I would earn a BA in English and later, a Master’s in counseling, but just like Grandma Ted, I am still learning.
I began keeping lists of the books I’d read each year during the years of young motherhood. I desperately wanted to finish college, and the list cheered me up; it supplied evidence that college or not, I was living the life of the mind. It helped me vary the genres I read for a broader perspective. When I gave the list up, I read less. When I resumed my list-keeping habit, I read more.
For the first time ever, I’m creating a yearly reading list in advance; I’m thinking through a reading plan. I got the idea from Haley Stewart’s ever interesting Carrots for Michelmas (see How to Make a Yearly Reading List (as a Grown-up).
Meanwhile, I’m going through my shelves and Kindle and Audible libraries before I finalize my first annual reading plan. I was amazed at the number of books I already own that I can read this year with no hit to the budget. I also discovered three helps worth sharing:
Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to the Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guiness. I don’t now where or how I discovered this book, but I was delighted when I found it among my stacks! With color illustrations, block quotes, sidebars and lively essays, it’s a great resource for filling in the gaps of my own incomplete education.
The Well-Educated Mind, A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer. I learned of this book on The MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, another favorite feeder for the life of the mind. In Volume 66, MHAJ host Ken Myers interviewed Bauer “on how adults can acquire many of the benefits of a classical education long after leaving school by reading wisely and well.” Bauer provides suggests taking on a genre (the novel, the memoir, history, etc.) and reading chronologically with the help of your own journal and her annotated lists. She provides ample advice for the beginner. I see the wisdom in the chronological approach although it’s not a perfect fit for me. I love the annotated lists. Bauer is a most helpful guide.
But what about spiritual reading? It has always been my reading priority, and its graces slowly led me to embrace Catholicism as a convert. Although I’d spent my adult life reading to feed my faith, I discovered more treasures than a second reading lifetime could fill in the spirituality of Francis de Sales, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross; the philosophical rigor Thomas Aquinas, the prayerful passion of Romano Guardini, and infinitely so much more. Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion and the Crisis of Faith by Fr. C. John McCloskey and Russell Shaw came to mind as I began planning my reading year. I read this short book several years ago and remembered its appendix, “The Catholic Lifetime Reading Plan.” Now available online at Catholicity, it’s a great list for those who want to continue their reading in what Bishop Robert Barron reminds us is “the Great Tradition.” That tradition is both spiritual and smart, an endless feeder for the soul.
The life of the mind isn’t owned by academicians; it’s the joy of all souls who love beauty.
Grandma Ted loved beauty. She understood.
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