Autobiography of a Bibliophile

Posted on March 5, 2015

Autobiography of a Bibliophile


It’s my grandmother’s fault.

Every time I visited her during my childhood, she’d give me books. Not just two or three books, but a boxful of books. She was a fourth-grade schoolteacher, and when she ordered from the book club for her class, she stocked up for me as well.

Actually, my love of reading goes back even further than that, to the hours upon hours my patient parents spent reading aloud to me. Johnny Gruelle’s Raggedy Ann books stand out in my memory—and they’re still on my bookshelf.

But my passion for collecting books is my grandmother’s fault.

It started innocently enough with the paperback editions of children’s classics that she provided: Charlotte’s Web, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, my well-worn copy of Little Women.

Pretty soon, random paperbacks weren’t enough.

My obliging parents supplied me with a set of hardcover Little House books in dust jackets (the price on my beloved copy of Little House on the Prairie is only $4.95) and the sixteen-volume set of The World Treasury of Children’s Classics in matching royal-blue bindings.

In my middle- and high-school years I rambled across Prince Edward Island with Anne Shirley, journeyed to Narnia with the Pevensies, explored Middle-Earth with Bilbo and Frodo, and wandered the moors with Jane Eyre. I shared the secret room with the Jews in Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and learned to trust God’s sovereignty with Joni Eareckson.

In college I fell in love—with the fiction of Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, and fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty. I also began to build my own library of books on theology and Christian living: Francis and Edith Schaeffer, Jerry Bridges, C. S. Lewis, A. W. Pink, J. I. Packer, Sinclair Ferguson, R. C. Sproul, Elisabeth Elliot.

In graduate school I came under the tutelage of Matthew J. Bruccoli—professor, author, publisher, and book-collector extraordinaire—who initiated me into the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald and instructed me in the fine arts of editing, bibliography, and serious book collecting: first editions, limited editions, states and issues, dust jacket variants, books with blurbs or forewords or introductions by my favorite authors, magazines with their stories or articles. The Eudora Welty collection I built in those years won a $300 prize from the university’s library society.

I was such a faithful patron of the University of South Carolina bookstore’s special-order desk (the titles I wanted were seldom in stock) that the clerks gave me a copy of Goodnight Moon— complete with stuffed bunny in blue-striped pj’s—when I gave birth to my first child just before finishing my master’s degree.

The transition from the rarefied halls of academia to the realities of motherhood at home was comparatively easy. Educating my sons has led me into new realms of reading and book collecting. My shelves of home education resources feature the works of Charlotte Mason, Karen Andreola, Catherine Levison, Ruth Beechick, Raymond and Dorothy Moore, Clay and Sally Clarkson, Susan and Michael Card, Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn, and Susan Schaeffer Macaulay.

I’ve had the delight of encountering authors I’d somehow missed like Eric Carle and the d’Aulaires, revisiting childhood favorites (I wept with my children at the death of Charlotte the spider and rejoiced anew at the resurrection of Aslan), and discovering a whole new side of the Little House books. In my girlhood I had focused on the dolls, the nine-patch quilts, and the romance between Laura and Almanzo; reading the books with my boys reminded me that they’re also full of Indians, wild animals, and adventure.

Then there are all those wonderful children’s series to collect: Landmarks, Childhood of Famous Americans, All About books, American Heritage Junior Library, Horizon Caravel, World Explorers.

Of course, if you’re serious about building a home library for your family, you need plenty of books about selecting books: Honey for a Child’s Heart, Books Children Love, How to Grow a Young Reader, A Landscape with Dragons, Who Should We Then Read?, All Through the Ages.

Ultimately, there is a generous genre of books about reading, publishing, and bibliophilia. I found kindred spirits in Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road and Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern’s Old Books, Rare Friends, which occupy the same shelf (well, actually two shelves) in my office as The Open Door: When Writers First Learned to Read; The Delights of Reading; A Passion for Books; The Book on the Bookshelf; Between Covers: The Rise and Transformation of American Book Publishing; At Home with Books: How Booklovers Live with and Care for Their Libraries; and A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.

Naturally, I require a place to shelve all these treasures: 17 bookcases in my home office, 8 in the living room, 5 in the dining room, 2 in the kitchen, 3 in the schoolroom, 3 in the hall, 9 in the bedrooms. Not to mention all those boxes of recent library-sale acquisitions that I haven’t even shelved yet….

And it appears the obsession is hereditary—or at least contagious. My four boys all show symptoms of bibliophilia, ranging from early read-aloud addiction to full-blown collecting mania.

Three-year-old Thomas is seldom still for more than a few seconds, but just read aloud to him and he’ll snuggle in your lap for hours. Pooh is his current favorite.

Seven-year-old Perry is the most ardent advocate of our family read-aloud times: “Please, Mom, just one more chapter of Carry On, Mr. Bowditch?”

Nine-year-old Andrew (whose preferred location for burying his nose in a book is on top of the monkey bars) recently moved some of his favorite science books to a special shelf in his own room “because I love them so much.” When I handed him The Boy Scientist and The Romance of Chemistry to add to his collection, his eyes got big as saucers and his jaw dropped in delighted amazement.

Forrest, almost twelve, saves his allowance for hardcover Redwall books, treasures two shelves of books by and about J. R. R. Tolkien (and regales visitors with obscure details of the history of Middle-Earth), and is building an impressive library of books about explorers—the topic which ignited his enthusiasm for the study of history. On his eleventh birthday he welcomed an addition to that collection with a comment that would warm any bibliophilic mother’s heart: “Oh, Mom, I needed another book about Sir Francis Drake—I only had one!”

If my children’s addiction is hereditary, it’s all my grandmother’s fault. But somehow, I don’t think she minds.


This article first appeared in Confessions of a Bookjunkie (Bookjunkie Press, 2004) and was reprinted in the May/June 2004 issue of Homeschooling Today.

What can you learn from a single chapter of a classic novel?

Posted on September 26, 2014

How much can you learn about a novel from the first chapter? That was my experiment in today’s literature class (for homeschoolers in grades 9-12).

I read the first chapter of Jane Eyre aloud and asked my students to tell me everything they noticed that might provide a clue to the rest of the novel. Here are some of their comments:

  • John Reed will be beaten up — at least I hope so! [Several of the guys said they would be happy to teach John a lesson.]
  • Jane will leave the Reeds.
  • Jane could be really happy later, but she could also be really devastated.
  • This doesn’t sound like what a ten-year-old would say. Is Jane a reliable narrator?
  • Jane is a bookworm and artistic. She is very descriptive and uses vivid imagery.
  • Jane will be kicked out and won’t trust people for a while.
  • Sounds like a Cinderella story.
  • There won’t be a happy ending.
  • Jane will have problems in the real world because she is an orphan.
  • I’m not used to a story told in first person. This is very different from Pride and Prejudice. Not sure I like it.
  • Where is Mr. Reed? Why isn’t he controlling his family? Maybe he’s a jerk too, or maybe he’s nice but uninvolved. I think it will be worse if he’s nice but uninvolved.
  • Jane seems strong now. Will she turn out to be a weak character? I hope not.
  • Jane is streetwise.



That’s a lot to get from 4 1/2 pages! If you’ve read Jane Eyre, you’ll know whether or not these theories were on target. I added only these observations — based strictly on the first chapter, without spoilers from the rest of the book:

  • There’s a lot of emphasis on atmosphere, mood, and setting — mostly dark and gloomy.
  • Jane has usually been “obedient” to John out of self-protection, but when she finally has enough, she turns on him.
  • The one happy bit is when Bessie (who’s not always nice to Jane) tells the children stories from old fairy tales, ballads, and novels, so we know that Jane’s imagination has been fed.

All the students were eager to continue reading. In fact, I suspect it will be hard for some of them to stop at the end of volume 1 (chapter 15), our first week’s assignment, although I asked them not to read ahead. (One guy commented that if John Reed doesn’t get his comeuppance by the end of this week’s reading, he will have to keep reading until he finds out what happens to him!)

This was a really fun exercise that sparked a lot of discussion. I may try it again with another book!

Do you have a favorite way to introduce a new book to your students?

A Melville-Mitford Monday Mash-Up

Posted on November 26, 2013

Call me Bibliophile. Some hours ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and no patience left with the incompetent and oblivious people I encountered in a long day of shopping, I thought I would travel about a little and revisit Mitford. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily becoming hypercritical and impatient, and bringing up the rear of the slowest-moving line in every store; and especially whenever my crankiness gets such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the aisle, and methodically knocking people’s carts over—then, I account it high time to get to Mitford as soon as I can. This is my substitute for psychotherapy. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the novel. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all readers in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the books with me.

Here in Mississippi, it’s been unseasonably cold for November, and a near-freezing, persistent rain has fallen all day. Not an ideal day to run about to 11 different stores for Thanksgiving groceries, office supplies, pet supplies, etc. I’ve been irrationally cranky all day, mentally overreacting to the traffic and the crowds and the S.L.O.W. cashiers.

Last week I had assigned bits of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick to my homeschool co-op literature class, so the opening paragraph was in my mind. Ishmael’s “damp, drizzly November” was both literal and figurative for me today.

As I drove from store to store, however, I listened to John McDonough’s wonderful reading of Out to Canaan, the fourth book in Jan Karon’s delightful Mitford series, and it soothed my soul.

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I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read the Mitford books. Jan Karon’s invitation in The Mitford Bedside Companion rings so true:

Just as we visit loved ones again and again, so you may go again and again to Mitford. Sometimes for refreshment. Often for peace. And always for hope.

Have you visited Mitford? If you haven’t, I invite you to experience its beauty and balm right away.


P.S. – For your reference, here’s the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick that inspired my Melville-Mitford Mash-Up on this cold, drizzly Monday:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”

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Literature of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation

Posted on October 18, 2012

One of the things I love about homeschooling is the opportunity for students to read whole books rather than textbook snippets. Every Friday I teach 18 students in grades 9-12 as part of a weekly homeschool co-op, and it’s thrilling to see these young people reading and discussing classic literature.

We spend most of our classroom time on discussion, not lecture. I discovered several years ago that if I let students do most of the talking, they end up addressing most of the issues in my carefully prepared lecture notes. Encouraging them to think deeply about what they read, to journal about it, and to share their opinions in class has a much more powerful impact than, for example, giving multiple-choice tests about the factual details of the books.

Our literature books coordinate with the time period we’re studying in history. This year we’re studying the literature of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. Here’s our reading list:

  • Confessions by St. Augustine
  • Beowulf
  • The Song of Roland
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
  • The Inferno by Dante
  • The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  • Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves (adapted from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Book I)
  • Dr. Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan
  • Selected poetry and essays

So far, Augustine’s Confessions and Beowulf have been big hits with my students. The Song of Roland didn’t go over so well; one student described it as “a morbid Dr. Seuss,” while another called it “a sing-along murder song.” I’ll be eager to see what they think about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight this week.

How do you teach literature in your homeschool?

P.S. – You may also be interested in these posts about the literature of antiquity and modernity:

Celebrate Homeschool Freedom Day!

Posted on August 7, 2012

On the first day of public school in our town, we celebrate Homeschool Freedom Day (a term I coined years ago). Whether or not our homeschool year has started, we DON’T have lessons that day. Instead, we celebrate, usually by going to the park for a picnic with homeschooling friends . . . just because we can!

We revel in the freedom and flexibility that homeschooling makes possible. (The generally smaller crowd at the park when government school is in session is a nice bonus.)

This year we made only a short trip to the park—having a picnic in 93% humidity just wasn’t that appealing—so we enjoyed lunch in the air-conditioned comfort of our favorite Mexican restaurant, Mi Pueblo. Fajitas, fun, and freedom!

[They really were having fun…until I pulled out the camera.]

I’d love to hear how your family celebrates Homeschool Freedom Day! And if you like the idea but school has already started where you live, just pick a day . . . any day . . . to celebrate your freedom. The Specific Holiday Date Enforcement Squad will never know.

Homeschooling Today’s 20th anniversary prize sign-up

Posted on June 17, 2012

Homechooling Today has been part of my family’s homeschool journey almost since the beginning. I’m honored to write the “Literature through the Centuries” column for the magazine and still enjoy reading each issue after 15 years of homeschooling.

To celebrate their 20th anniversary, Homeschooling Today is hosting 20 weeks of fabulous prizes AND special Grand Prizes worth hundreds of dollars!

I’ve donated a copy of my time management course How Do You Do It All to the prizes.

You can enter the drawing for all the prizes here.

The weekly prize drawing is open to anyone, but only subscribers are eligible to win grand prizes. You’ll find an abundance of practical tools, encouragement, and inspiration for your homeschooling.

Join me for the Ultimate Homeschool Expo!

Posted on April 23, 2012

Looking for encouragement and practical tips for your homeschool journey? Join me for the conference you can attend at home!

There are dozens of speakers on a huge variety of topics ranging from communication to computer science to couponing! I’ll be speaking twice–once on overcoming interruptions and distractions and once on building a home library and teaching your children to love books.

Hope you can join us!

Click Here to Checkout The Ultimate Homeschool Expo!

83 Ways to Celebrate Valentine’s Day!

Posted on February 9, 2012

83 Ways to Celebrate Valentines – February 1-14, 2012. Celebrate with us by receiving a gift!

Includes history of Valentines Day, Homeschool Activities, Crafts, Special Family Activities and much more

I am partnering with “How To Homeschool My Child” to bring you a special gift on Monday, February 13, 2012.

Go to now to sign up on the home page for 14 February Freebies.

The Freebies start on Feb 1 with a free ebook- 83 Things to Do to Celebrate Valentines and my gift to you on Feb 13, 2012.

“How To Homeschool My Child” will also send a special gift from all of their homeschooling partners on each day of the first 14 Days of February, but only to their subscribers. So don’t miss out on some wonderful offers to keep on homeschooling the best way possible this year!

Mary Jo

ps. Sign-up now so you don’t miss a thing!

Our Christmas Traditions

Posted on December 23, 2011

One of my favorite parts of Christmas is reading aloud in front of the fire and the Christmas tree lights each evening in December.

This year we’re reading The Handel’s Messiah Family Advent Reader, which includes 28 nightly devotionals and an audio CD with related bits of The Messiah to accompany each reading. A “Read More About It” section in the back provides additional details and resources for digging deeper on each topic.

In addition to our nightly Advent reading, we often read a Christmas picture book. I’ve already posted about The Baker’s Dozen: A St. Nicholas Tale. Since we love our 6 cats, we also enjoy The Twelve Days of Christmas Cats, read/sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” If you’ve ever mixed cats and Christmas, you’ll understand the line about “a kitten in a fir tree”!

One of our favorite Christmas books is An Orange for Frankie by Patricia Polacco. It’s a sweet story of family togetherness and unselfishness.

In honor of Frankie’s orange, we place oranges on our mantel each Christmas (along with our cherished nutcracker collection).

What are your favorite Christmas books and traditions?

Twelve Days of Christmas with Homeschooling Today

Posted on December 21, 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas – December 26, 2011 through January 6, 2012. Celebrate with us by receiving a gift for the season!

I am partnering with Homeschooling Today magazine to bring you a special discount on January 2.

Go to now to sign up on the home page for the Homeschooling Helper e-newsletter to receive this special offer via e-mail on the above date. Homeschooling Today will send a special discount or gift from a different vendor each day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, but only to their readers. So don’t miss some wonderful offers to get your new year started off right! Sign up now so you don’t miss a thing!