Sitting in her kitchen nook, sipping her mid-morning cup of coffee–“the best part of being a housewife” — Lesley Conger decided one day in October 1961 that, “The shape my ambition has taken this year is this: I shall begin to read all the books I should have read by now….” Adventures of an Ordinary Mind is the diary of that year of reading.
Today, such books are becoming almost a micro-genre on their own, with such recent titles as Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust (not to mention her dive into neglected books, The Shelf). The only easily-found precedent to Conger’s book, however — which she does mention — was Bernard Berenson’s A Year’s Reading for Fun, an account of how he and his fellow inmates of I Tatti (hardly the worst place to get stuck) wiled away a year during World War Two mining Berenson’s priceless library.
Lesley Conger and her book are quite the contrasts to the refined taste and elevated atmosphere of Berenson and his book. Mother to six children ranging in age from five to fifteen, she squeezed her reading in between loads of laundry, stirred stewpots with a book in one hand, and found the energy to get through a canto or two of Dante before turning out the light. Instead of Renaissance masterpieces, her walls featured PTA notices, children’s crayon drawings, maps with vacation routes marked in red and “an oil painting by a nobody, left over from Greenwich Village days, which nobody likes but it has such a nice frame.” And Berenson probably never wondered, “If a child is going to drop a doughnut thickly crusted in powdered sugar, why does he do it at the top of a flight of stairs carpeted in dark red?”
Lesley Conger was the pen-name of Shirley Suttles — who. at the time, really was a housewife, living in Vancouver, B.C. and raising seven kids (the last one came after this book) with her husband, Wayne. Contrary to her title, though, Suttles was no ordinary mind. She and her husband studied at the University of Washington and Berkeley, and she spent at year at the New School for Social Research, sharing a room with the very young James Baldwin, before reuniting with Wayne back in Seattle (he was the UW’s first Ph.D. graduate in anthropology). Even as their family began to grow, she still found to write articles and short stories for magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and McCalls, and even published a humorous account of life in the Suttles house, Love and Peanut Butter (1961). Her husband went on to become a pioneering ethnographer and linguist of Indians of the Pacific Northwest, publishing such works as Musqueam Reference Grammar (still in print, by the way).
And her year’s reading included works that can challenge even the least distracted readers: Vergil; Euripides; the Bhagavad Gita; Bouvard et Pécuchet; Camus’ The Plague. She puts a remarkable effort into sticking with her program through its dryest spells. But then she is, she admits, addicted to reading:
I will read anything. I will even read it twice. And because I have a large house and six children and a cat and a dog, and can’t always find an uninterrupted hour or two to sit down peacefully with a book, I read on the fly, as it were. I read while stirring a pudding; I read while darning socks. There is always some book I am reading, and I carry it around with me, propping it open wherever I happen to be. I can, for example, read a page or two while the dirty water drains out of the washing machine, and a page of Maugham is more diverting than a view of mud from blue jeans under a scum of detergent suds.
When she goes to the library, it’s “in the mood of a logger hitting town after six weeks in the bush.” She does confess at one point, though, that Plato’s Dialogues “are not what a weary mother wants to read between bouts of caring for a small patient.” And I had to shout, “Amen!” when I read that she found “reading Faulkner like wading through waist-deep water thick with seaweed.”
Sadly, this book was seen as a mix of Erma Bombeck and the Great Books Program, didn’t please the fans of Love and Peanut Butter nor those looking for something a little more intellectual. Kirkus Reviews dismissed it as “a pleasant annotation of a full life and an eager mind — but no more.” The only printing was quickly shuffled to the remainder pile.
And though, late in the book, she celebrates carving out a room of her own (actually, just a closet) so she can concentrate on finishing a novella, Conger/Suttles did not publish another book for adult readers, aside from To Writers, with Love, a collection of her “Off the Cuff” columns, which appeared in The Writer for over fifteen years.
Shirley Suttles died in 2006, at the age of 88, a year after her husband Wayne’s passing, leaving behind a large family — and a few happy readers.