When Vicki Tucker remembers books, she remembers the time and place where she read them.
“The Incredible Journey” — as a young child in bed with the measles, hanging on her mom’s every word.
“Jane Eyre”—16 years old in the backseat of the family car on a road trip.
“Middlemarch”— in college on her bed with light pouring in from the window.
And then there are the countless others she read sitting in a church pew, instead of the Bible.
Growing up in Weslaco, Texas, Tucker and her family attended the Seventh Day Adventist Church. And they didn’t just go on Sunday. Saturday morning, Saturday night, Friday night and Wednesday night were all times of worship. The church was central in their lives, including the church’s rules regarding books. Fiction books were discouraged. Nature stories, Bible stories, and uplifting moral stories took their place.
There was no punishment for reading fiction, but Tucker’s parents and other members of the church tried to guide her towards books they preferred. They’d tell her to keep her mind on God, or that the Holy Spirit couldn’t talk to her if she read works of fiction. Tucker didn’t mind when she was young and just listening to books her mom read out loud.
But once she learned to read on her own, Tucker wanted to read everything. When Tucker really loved a book, such as “Treasure Island,” she would take it with her everywhere, including to church. She would hide the books inside black book covers so no one would know.
Tucker said her parents didn’t hate fiction, they just felt she should read something with a moral message, not what they saw as sensationalized adventure tales.
“It’s not like [“Treasure Island”] was a bad book,” Tucker said.” But you’d be better off reading a Bible story than reading something about pieces of eight, Long John Silver and deceit.”
In the 70s, Tucker went to high school at Valley Grande Academy. Even though the school was affiliated with her church, they studied fiction there. Now direction about what to read wasn’t coming from her parents, but from her Bible studies teachers.
“Unless it was assigned in school and you had somebody telling you basically how to interpret it, they just thought you shouldn’t be reading [fiction],” Tucker said.
Tucker wanted to read beyond what she was assigned. She wanted to read “In Cold Blood” by Truman Capote, but she knew her teachers would disapprove.
So Tucker got good at hiding her book in plain sight. She would carry it with her everywhere, but kept the cover hidden from view. When teachers walked by, she would stuff the book into her bag or cover the front with a sheet of notebook paper. During high school, teachers got used to Tucker having a book in her hands. Eventually, they stopped questioning what it was.
Tucker became known for always having a book in her hand. So it came as no surprise to her family and congregation, when she decided to major in music and minor in English at Southwestern Adventist College near Fort Worth, Tex. At S.A.C., she enrolled in literature classes, but they had a twist.
It wasn’t the curriculum that made the classes different – in her Great Books class they read books such as “War and Peace” and “Ivanhoe.” What was unique was how the teachers approached class discussions. There was less analysis of the meanings of symbols than in a typical English class. Instead, the focus was on the spiritual significance of the books.
In 1982, Tucker went to the University of California at Riverside to work on her Masters in Literature studies. It was there that Tucker’s shift in thinking happened. Before her religion shaped how she thought about books, but now the tables were turned. Now literature made her critique her beliefs and question what she was being taught in church.
Tucker remembers one book in particular affecting her because of the author’s own changes in religion—“Middlemarch” by George Eliot. George Eliot was the pen name of a woman named Mary Ann Evans, who used a man’s name because in 19th Century England female writers weren’t respected. Evans grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church and lost her faith when she turned to science, feeling she couldn’t believe in both. Tucker said that although the rules of Evans’s church were probably stricter than in hers, she identified with the author’s struggle to find out what she believed.
“It’s not that I felt I should become agnostic because that writer was,” Tucker said. “But I realized that there are different ways of finding out what’s valuable and important in life and it doesn’t always have to come through a church.”
Tucker said that after considering the beliefs of authors like Eliot, she discovered some of priorities. She realized that one thing that really mattered to her had been hidden in her school bag all along. For Tucker, literature became almost a religion.
“ Instead of getting my beliefs from an organized religion it was like formulating my beliefs through the minds of great thinkers,” Tucker said.
Now teaching English 11 AP, Tucker still takes books with her everywhere she goes—including to the grocery store, because there might be time to read another page.
She cherishes literature and enjoys teaching it in class. Books aren’t her religious guidance anymore, they’ve become works of art.
“Since I teach it [literature] so much, it’s an art now to be analyzed more than to be inspired by,” Tucker said.
Tucker loves this process. She loves showing students parallels between novels and pointing out symbols they might have missed. But most of all, she loves the moments when she knows students understand a new theme in a book.
“It’s almost breath-taking when you realize you’ve gotten a very difficult concept across to somebody or to the whole class,” Tucker said.
Tucker still attends church when she can, but recently she hasn’t because there are few Seventh Day Adventist churches in the Kansas City area. She hasn’t rejected her childhood religion, but she has broadened her views. Reading about different authors’ beliefs has made her evaluate her own more closely. She stopped judging the authors’ religious beliefs and started to see the common goals they had with her own.
“I realized that this is what they believe and it was serving the same purpose of helping them cope with daily life,” Tucker said.
Tucker tries to instill a love of literature in her students. Through outside reading lists that she develops herself, she hopes to expose her students to many genres of books. She hopes each student will find a book that excites them.
“I think reading is a way into another world,” Tucker said. “Reading is a way to help people work through problems. Reading helps you see things you would never have seen otherwise.”