Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In Conversation With...Elaine King

First published in The Oxford Journal on February 15, by Sara Mattinson

For some of us, there are not enough hours in the day for reading. Too many good books, too little time. Yet for much of her long life, Elaine King of Pugwash has managed to read a book a day. 
“A certain party who shall remain nameless gave me 28 hardcover books for Christmas,” Elaine announces as soon as the interview begins in the house she shares with her husband of more than twenty years. A sidelong glance at George’s cherubic face confirms he is the nameless party. “And each one of them was wrapped individually.” 
That’s how a man who falls asleep before he finishes the first chapter of any book lives with a woman who reads a book a day: He shops for her. The entire middle row of the bookcase in their living is filled with those Christmas gifts. And by now, Elaine has read them all. 
“I started reading when I was eight years old,” the 81-year-old former Canada Post employee says. “I had diphtheria and my teacher was reading a chapter a day of a book. I was out for about three weeks and by the time I went back, she had finished the book. She loaned it to me and I took it home and that’s when I really started to read.”
The daughter of parents originally from England, she also read British newspapers, magazines and books sent to her by her cousins. (She also is a 45-year devotee of the television show, Coronation Street, which drives the jovial George out of the living room because he can’t understand a word the actors say.)
Elaine grew up in Springhill where her father worked at the mines. 
 “My father was a prodigious reader,” Elaine remembers. “He didn’t have access to the books I do, nor the money to spend on them, but when the mines closed and the library opened, he walked uptown every day, from Monument Hill, to take out a book a day.”
Marriage and four children did not quell Elaine’s love of reading. 
“It was a family joke: The dishes go under the sink and Mama is sitting in the rocking chair with a bag of peppermints and a book. That’s what my kids say they remember when they were little.”
To fuel her book-a-day habit, her tastes must be, by necessity, wide-ranging. 
“Sometimes it’s trash, like this stuff,” she says, smacking a paperback romance lying on the table next to her blue recliner, “and sometimes it’s heavy stuff. There is one thing I won’t read, though,” Elaine is adamant. “I won’t read westerns. I just don’t like cowboy stories! I love a good mystery, I love a good medical story. And romance.”
Elaine says she reads every biography she can get her hands on so she’s read the life stories of both  Maureen McTeer and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as anything about the Royal Family. 
“I like books about people and their lives. You’re learning another person’s view of the world.” 
What were her favourite books as a child? 
“The L.M. Montgomery books,” Elaine answers without hesitation. “I think I read them all before I was ten years old. I was in my teens when I got into the later ones, the Ingleside books. I really liked those.”
Elaine lost both her father and her first husband in 1980, and ten years would pass before she would meet George on a blind date. 
“It’s worked out very well,” Elaine chortles. 
It’s a perfect match. George likes watching television, and doing crosswords and puzzles. Elaine can read with the television on without being distracted from her book. Surprisingly, their  one-bedroom apartment in Pugwash isn’t dominated by bookshelves. There are only two, actually, in the bedroom and the living room. Given that Elaine reads more than 300 books a year, there would be no room for the two of them, and their 14-year-old cat Alfie, if Elaine kept every book George brought home (for it is George who buys most of Elaine’s books now that she can’t get around very well). Elaine’s favourites take up the bottom shelf of the bookcase in the living room. Every book by Diana Gabaldon is there as well as early books by Ken Follett. She also enjoys the Prey series by John Sandford. 
“The hardest thing is getting them moved after I’ve read them,” Elaine admits. “I get so full then I put them in boxes and take them down to my daughter’s. We have a yard sale every summer.” 
 “I do a pretty good job of remembering which books Elaine has read,” says George, the chief book buyer.
George’s latest purchases, including Margaret Atwood, are stacked up on the coffee table. On the side table next to Elaine’s chair are two very thick books, the latest Tom Clancy and Elizabeth George novels which are over 600 pages each.
“The bigger, the better,” says Elaine. “Those will take me two or three days to read.” 
Would Elaine consider using an e-reader?
“No. I don’t like the idea. I get pleasure out of holding a book,” she says, grabbing the half-read paperback next to her and ruffling the pages between her fingers. “I want the feel and the weight of the book.”
Readers need hours but we also need snacks. Elaine has already shared her peppermint habit but when she’s asked about her favourite reading snacks these days, George starts to laugh. He laughs and laughs, loudly, as Elaine gets out of her chair and goes into the bedroom. She returns lugging a huge Christmas gift bag.
Also from George, it’s full of chocolates. Well, half-full; after all, it’s been 52 reading days since Christmas.

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