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Year of reading furiously opens new and old doors

After the moralistic tone of Hill's books, it was like an ice-cold dunk after being in the hot tub way too long.

Last week The Oregonian columnist Steve Duin announced the winners of his annual reading contest, in which he asks bibliophiles to track their page count for a calendar year. Forest Grove resident Wendy Vannoy was among those who took up the challenge.

While Vannoy didn't win the battle of books (despite plowing thorough 18,021 pages), Duin picked her written reflections on the experience as the winner of the 2011 Ann Brownell Memorial Essay contest, named for Portland writer Ann Brownell, who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2008.

Duin said he liked how Vannoy paralleled her expanding interests as a reader with the evolution of her spiritual beliefs.

Vannoy trimmed her essay a bit for the News-Times. Her original can be read on Duin's blog, at oregonlive.com.

In the winter of 2010, I happened to see Steve Duin's column discussing his 'unofficial' book-reading contest, and since I am competitive by nature, I felt compelled to rise to the challenge.

I am an avid reader, and have been since I first learned to read at the age of two!

I have been known to read the phone book just to have something to do. As an unhappy teen, I would go to the library each week and check out five-to-seven books.

My favorite thing to do was to read everything that the library had by an author I liked. I read while I vacuumed and did other household chores.

I read by the light coming in under my bedroom door when it was supposed to be 'lights out.' I got my first pair of glasses in the fifth grade.

But I had never kept track of how much I read, so I was curious.

I listed my first book with good intentions, then promptly forgot about it for the next four months!

In May, however, the Friends of Forest Grove Library had their annual book sale event and, as I always wait until the very last day ($5 for a bag of books!), I was really surprised that there was a whole table of vintage books by Grace Livingston Hill (1865-1947).

This was equivalent to finding your long-lost childhood best friend.

I had read her books as said unhappy teen and remembered them as being romantically idealistic and offering a moral code that was not present in my real life.

I wanted to read them again, so I bought every single one of those books - 42 total, including three written by her daughter, Ruth - and set down to re-read and re-experience them.

After I had read a few of them, suddenly I remembered the book contest and decided that it was still important to me to list my books. So, I went back through my calendar and my book stack by the bed and entered in all the books I had read up to that point.

My favorite book was 'Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal,' by Christopher Moore.

Let me tell you, after the extremely Christian, born-again, impossibly idealistic and moralistic tone of the 42 Grace Livingston Hill books, it was like an ice-cold dunk after being in the hot tub way too long.

Don't get me wrong. I loved reading Hill's books again; they showed me where I got my romantic notions about love and connection. I realized why I was with my current partner, why her particular blend of innocence, moral code, work ethic, values and spiritual awareness drew me in.

Rereading them, I was grateful for the staying power of books, grateful for the freedom of expression in books, grateful that the Grants Pass Library still carried these books when I was a teen, 50-plus years after they were originally written.

'Lamb,' however, reflects where I am today, who I have become over the years. Its message incorporates my childhood Christian upbringing and honoring Hill's theme of a 'Savior,' but it also blends in all the spiritual teachings I have been introduced to on my own personal spiritual growth path.

I realized by reading these books back-to-back that my own personal values and moral code includes the teachings of Jesus, Buddha and many other spiritual advisers.

Humor, creativity and not taking one's self too seriously are also key values in my life.

I realized that I have traveled far and gone through many stages of acceptance/grief/anger in my own personal spiritual beliefs and growth.

I have moved through belief because it was what I was taught, through complete and utter disbelief, and now back to a spiritually open heart.

I gave my (very conservative, Christian) grandmother all of the Grace Livingston Hill books to read. And we have a common ground now to talk about these books and enjoy them together.

I did not give her 'Lamb' to read. She would have thought it was blasphemous. So, even though she is not able to see me for who I completely am, I accept her for who she is and no longer cause myself pain wishing for me.

And I will continue to keep track of my books each year. I am competitive enough to see if I can beat my 2011 count. And I am curious to see what books touch my life and help me learn new lessons.

- When not curled up with a good book, Wendy Vannoy can be found practicing naturopathy at one of her two clinics, Naturopathic and Massage Therapy in Forest Grove and Synergy Women's Health Care in Northwest Portland.