I envy the way my oldest son reads, stretched out on the living room couch, all of a sudden this year taking up most of three cushions. Watch his face: his lips move, his eyebrows raise and lower in drastic measures, he smiles, winces, gapes and falls still all in a mere breath.
He practices the cliché – he devours books. But, even better, the books devour him.
I used to be the same way. When I was about ten a pen pal came to visit from all the way across the country and I didn’t notice her for a few days after discovering a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins in her suitcase.
“Want to go swimming?” she would ask. “Want to ride bikes? Want to watch TV?”
No. I was reading. I was busy becoming an Austin. There were four kids in that family and in my family there was only me, but for the duration of the book and all subsequent readings, I owned those brothers and sisters. I had to make sure Vicki recovered from her fall off her bike, that Maggie didn’t get Suzie into too much trouble, that nobody froze during the ice storm. A beloved pen pal paled in comparison.
That’s what reading used to feel like: changing into something better, or at least different, for a short time. Becoming the characters. Changing forever. Emily of New Moon, Ramona Cleary, any of Lois Duncan’s savvy heroines, sad Davey from Tiger Eyes, clever kids from Paula Danziger – the list is long. I wasn’t picky.
I’m not one of those creative types who has dark, damp memories of teenage loneliness and long-lasting existential horror, though I have tried at different times to cultivate that image. I was pretty happy. I had friends. I had a horse, a job I loved, parents who were wise enough to let me go most of the time. And I had books, though not quite in the same way I had them in my first decade. Camus and Shakespeare often jostled elbows in my backpack, they also shared space with Christopher Pike and whoever it was wrote the Sweet Valley High series – educational reading. I was a busy kid; I had only a few empty afternoons waiting like warm pools to slide into with a book. I read between the cracks of my daily life and didn’t mind, didn’t notice.
College was where I discovered other people liked books, too. I never got around to sniffing out the sororities, but within the first few weeks of my first semester I became an ardent member of the English Club. People in the English Club read aloud by candlelight and sipped red wine and walked to town to hear Martin Espada and Kurt Vonnegut. In that cramped, dusty office on the second floor of Bartlett Hall I was introduced to e.e.cummings (I know! So late!), James Merrill and Philip Roth in the form of Portnoy’s Complaint.
Who proved to be useful during my sophomore year when I had time to kill while visiting my boyfriend in Atlanta. Portnoy was a keen distraction from curious thoughts about the wineglasses I found on a high shelf in my boyfriend’s kitchen, suspicions about a certain girl he drove home from campus nearly every day, sinking alarm at his obvious comfort in her apartment when we went to visit. Portnoy kept me oddly sane during a tumultuous three-week visit. By the time I boarded a plane heading back to the frozen north, the book was a battered companion after having been read a few dozen times. No human friend could have withstood my needy attentions like that.
Reading as self-defense – a technique I’ve used often. Whenever I travel, I bring a familiar book to keep invasive home sickness at bay. A death in the family? I escape grieving guests to read upstairs in my bed. Marital eruptions? When the dust settles I can be found behind a book. Better than drugs or alcohol for numbing the occasional pain of daily life.
But the way I read in college was different from the way I read as a child. I read from afar. I noticed technique, I could sift through the narrative and explain why a book worked. I loved Roth, Garcia Marquez, Ford and O’Brien, but they were never able to maintain the spell that L’Engle could cast over the whole of me. Not that L’Engle is a better writer. But I was a different reader.
Graduate school was where I met writers and read their books and realized that real people wrote the books I loved. Not that I thought books arrived from some celestial source, but I’d never had a conversation with a writer whose name appeared on a book jacket or two. Before this, my wish to be a writer had shared characteristics with my wish to be a ballerina. Never mind I hadn’t had a dance class since I was three. But Francois Camoin, Abby Frucht, Victoria Redel – they had written books, and they were sitting across the lunch table from me.
Knowing the authors did nothing to decrease the distance I felt from the books I held in my hands. Instead, as I learned better how to decipher the coded technique in any text, that highway between me and the book grew longer. As I became a better writer, I became a more distant reader.
When my first child was born I prepared by reading Carol Shields’ Unless. Other expectant moms read thick how-to manuals. I dove headfirst into a story about a mother who acutely misses her daughter, about a daughter who confronts a harshness that alters the way she enters the world. I credit the book for getting me through 24 hours of hard labor. Not towards the end when there were so many people with me. But in the beginning of birth pains, at home while my husband snored in the other room, I escaped the so-far minimal disruption by kneeling on the floor and hovering over the book, rocking my body back and forth. Pain in my belly, pain in the book.
Babies arrive and yes, you might spend a bizarre amount of time watching them sleep, but you also might get a tiny bit bored and long for something normal to do. Like finish one of your favorite books. With my second baby I read Paula Fox’s first memoir, Borrowed Finery, and with my third – well, don’t tell him, but I can’t remember. There were two other children who still needed my reassurance and advice, and brains can be foggy after giving birth. I know I read something, though. Perhaps it was self-defense again; perhaps I look to books to protect me from life’s ultimate highs and lows; maybe I am addicted to the parallel highs and lows books have to offer. I see the world through book-colored glasses.
Now I am a professional reader. Reviewing books is one of several profit-driven jobs I do in between the tasks related to the care of three little boys and a house and a husband and a plethora of chickens. And reviewing has perhaps changed the way I read more than any other life shift. I read faster. I could, if I weren’t so inconveniently honest, write a comprehensive and accurate review of most of the (bad) books after only 20 pages. But I keep going. I read with an ear open to possible quotes, I look for mistakes, patterns of textual mayhem, suggestions on how to improve the next book. Some days, reading all these bad books is enough to make me turn to television.
But there are good things about bad books. I read over my own fiction with an ear bent precisely toward what can go wrong. I read like a reader instead of a writer.
When I find myself audience to a good review book the sensation is akin to that felt while watching my middle boy learn to ride his bike. With fewer moments of sheer fear. I slow down, I bite my tongue to keep from cheering out loud, and I type very, very fast after I put the book down. I swoon over these books – The Dark Side of Love, Last Night in Montreal, The Cold Earth. And sometimes, even when the youngest son shrieks for cookies and the oldest laments the lack of toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom and the middle child begs loudly for a new bike, I don’t quite hear them. I have been devoured.
Am I a happier reader now than I was when I was eight? Is today’s generation happier than our cavemen ancestors? Evolution both solves problems and creates new ones; as plenty of recent books explain: happiness is relative. I still love to read. Reading might be sweeter now that I fall in love with fewer books. And sometimes knowing why I love a certain book is a sweetness in itself.
On my way to bed these days I pass my oldest boy still awake, eyes roaming the page in ever-widening sweeps. He’s tired. “But I can’t stop reading,” he whispers.
I know the feeling.
[Image credit: Aurore D]