“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.”
Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating.
For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.)
If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton.
Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop.
On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it.
Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids.
Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals.
Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival.
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