Lit Thursday: Books Our Mothers Read Us

From Emily Dickinson's poems to J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories, the Lenny editors recount the books our mothers shared with us, and the values we've inherited from them.

More From Books
20 articles
A Chibok Schoolgirl Who Escaped Boko Haram
On the Lifesaving Bonds of Female Friendship
Lit Thursday: The Glass Eye
GIF
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Lena Dunham:

My mother gave me all her books from her teenage years to peruse — Bobbsey twins, Kerouac, tear-stained Jane Austen, guides to fashion illustration and hippie-ish crafting — but my most favorite is a massive photo book called Birds of Britain. The green cloth tome chronicles British "It" girls from Charlotte Rampling to Penelope Tree. Never have swinging skirts, swinging sex, and cocaine looked more appealing — wholesome even. The book is now out of print, but I did write a college term paper on the genesis of the "It" girl for which it was my only source. Holler if you need a copy.

More From Books
20 articles
A Chibok Schoolgirl Who Escaped Boko Haram
On the Lifesaving Bonds of Female Friendship
Lit Thursday: The Glass Eye
A Moving Letter to Audre Lorde
I Have a Foolproof Plan for Success. Succeed Less.

Editor in chief Jess Grose:

I started reading what I thought were "grown-up books" exclusively when I was twelve or so, precocious twat that I was. I remember especially fetishizing my mother's college books, which had her neat, blocky handwriting in the margins. I particularly loved her well-cared-for copy of J.D. Salinger's Nine Stories. To this day, my mother's most damning criticism of a book is that it's "not depressing enough" — a retired psychiatrist, she believes real life rarely has a happy ending. Salinger's stories share that ethos in the best way, and reading about the travails of the extended Glass family made me feel very adult, and very connected to my mother, indeed.

Contributing writer Kaitlyn Greenidge:

My mother read to us every night — a tradition she started when she had only one daughter and which, looking back, must have been onerous by the time she had three. She read each of us a different book, too, and when we had three separate bedrooms, she had to go around to each to read (I would like to point out that one of us was kind of too old to still be read to, but that is another story). As the youngest and also the most hyperactive, I often was read to last. We read a lot of poetry, but it's only very recently that I've realized the reason why: my mom was probably exhausted from working all day, picking us up from our various after-school activities, making dinner, and then having to read three different books to three very demanding daughters who would automatically remind her if she was rereading a chapter or had skipped a part. But it all worked out — poetry became one of my favorite things.

She read to me first from a book called Wider Than the Sky, which had poems from every poet you could imagine — they weren't poems written for children. The title is from an Emily Dickinson poem that begins "The brain is wider than the sky, / for put them side by side, / the one the other will include / With ease, and you beside" — which seemed hopelessly romantic to me as a kid; I wanted my wedding vows to include it. She also read to me from a collection of black poets with the most fearsome title ever: Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep, which I dreamed of getting tattooed on my arm once I was old enough.

Assistant editor Molly Elizalde:

When I was little, the bookshelf in the bedroom I shared with my older sister was full of my mother's old books — some were her own childhood copies, and others she had acquired as a young woman. Her love of the whimsical and make-believe was instilled in us from stories like Peter Rabbit and Little Witch (she read to us from her own, yellowed 1961 edition; the book was out of print at that point in the mid-1990s). My favorites, though, were the three books she read to us from L. Frank Baum's Land of Oz series — The Land of Oz, The Road to Oz, and The Emerald City of Oz — which she collected in her teens. The first-edition copies dated to the early 1900s and had illustrations by John R. Neill. One is even inscribed: "This Book Belongs to: Alice Isabel Daniels from James A. Xmas 1912."

It's not so much the stories that I remember today (although I do remember my mother crafting a specific voice for each character as she read) but my awe in holding an object that seemed so precious both to its former owner and to my mother. That she pursued these books for their original illustrations fostered my own love of art and imbued an appreciation for the meaning and history behind objects.

More from Lenny Letter: