All devoted readers can recall moments of childhood reading that glow with the significance of self-mythology. These are our versions of David Copperfield shut in his upstairs room, “reading as if for life.” Such episodes are often incidental: a stray volume plucked off a parent’s shelf, a book pressed into one’s hand by a discerning librarian. Only in retrospect do they appear formative.
Here is one of mine:
I am eight or nine, sitting on a hardwood floor with an illustrated encyclopedia of science and medicine spread before me. Somewhere in the room a fan thrums to protest the North Carolina heat. Each page, as I turn it, catches the torrent of air, buckles and billows like a veiny paper wing.
The book’s frank images would gratify any young reader with an appetite for the macabre: gangrenous limbs, blackened teeth, snarled human hands frozen in a praying mantis-like claw. I brush past medical curiosities to arrive at the section I visit repeatedly, obsessively: the pages on human evolution. Yes, I think, tracing my finger along the contours of that ancient anatomy; that was us, that was me. The humanoid forms of Australopithecus africanus and Homo erectus stalk through my brain. In the inner corridors of my being a quiet rebellion stirs, a mute skepticism against the parents who had informed me that human beings were created by God alone.
In high school, science education became not wondrous but instrumental, the only thrill coming from an affably deranged chemistry teacher who spoke darkly of toxic vapors and a disfiguring lab accident in his past. Biology, chemistry, and physics, I learned, were labors to suffer through if you wanted to become a doctor or an engineer, and I had no plans of doing either.
David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo (1996) challenged that easy view and expanded my sense of the intellectual possibilities available to me. I came across the book the summer after my senior year of high school. During those months I followed a strict routine. I would rush home from my shift at the local Subway, strip off the green polo that reeked of chemically elasticized bread, and begin what I thought of as my real job: reading novels.
A beloved teacher had recommended The Song of the Dodo. I opened the book dutifully but with trepidation. What could a 700-page volume about island biogeography have to do with my guiding passion—which, I had declared to myself, was literature? My grim compulsion (now thankfully abandoned) to finish every book I started heightened the risks of embarking on such a lengthy voyage.
Quammen, luckily, made for a thrilling companion. The book tells a story of how ecosystems unravel. Joining together lucid explanation of evolutionary concepts, biographical accounts of 19th- and20th-century naturalists, and dispatches from his travels to remote islands, Quammen ushers his readers into a world where species can grow large or Lilliputian, spread across continents or vanish altogether.
Scientists eager to learn which organisms live where and why have long turned to islands. Charles Darwin’s famous visit to the Galápagos in the 1830s and Alfred Russel Wallace’s expeditions in Malay a few decades later were pioneering but hardly singular. Islands present simplified, exaggerated versions of evolutionary processes that occur on mainlands. Endless forms most beautiful, and also most strange, evolve in insular habitats. Elephants dwindle to dwarfism; reptiles swell gigantic. Yet island populations, Quammen shows, are particularly vulnerable, prone to inbreeding, habitat loss, and other extinction risks.
Asked whether she was a “fiction or a nonfiction person,” the critic and novelist Francine Prose replied: “I consider myself a sentence person.” With Quammen I discovered the truth of this view—that elegant sentences can emerge, glinting, from any genre. Here he halts by an animal skeleton on the island of Anak Krakatau:
The sun-bleached bones, clean and austere after months in this tropical autoclave, show nicely white against the dark lava. They lie in a graceful cluster, like a still life arranged for a Japanese garden. Once they belonged to a mammal.
With sentences like these Quammen stirred the marvel I had once felt poring over illustrations of hominids and connected it to my adult passion for literature. He modeled how a writer could achieve intellectual breadth without forsaking style. An English major at Yale who wrote a master’s thesis on William Faulkner, he seemed utterly at ease explaining sophisticated ideas in population biology. Quammen himself is part of a near-extinct breed: the generalist, the autodidact, the person of letters.
Four years after I read The Song of the Dodo, I won a Rhodes Scholarship and sent off a stuttering email to Quammen, who was a Rhodes Scholar in the 1970s and whose name I had blurted in my interview. He not only returned my email, but spoke with me on the phone, an act of generosity I suspect he saw as unexceptional. He could not have known how powerfully his book set certain interests of mine in motion, that there existed a clear line between my reading of The Song of the Dodo and my decision to pursue graduate training at Oxford in the history of science.
Quammen told me he hadn’t much enjoyed his time at Oxford, and this report became less surprising once I began my studies there. Some of my professors would drop the word “autodidact” as a sneer. Anyone who ventured outside their academic subspecialty or (worse) dared to write about important matters without first receiving an Oxbridge education was subjected to withering derision. Quammen’s example of iridescent self-education had inoculated me against this snobbish reasoning. Autodidacticism, I felt, was something miraculous, a mark of irrepressible curiosity, a way of slicing through disciplinary borders; if the product (Quammen’s book, for example) was so marvelous, the practice couldn’t be so bad.
Sometimes, in such moments of High Table pomposity, I would think back to Quammen and his phone call. As one might expect from a man who had wandered all over the world, he spoke to me that day about adventure. “No one wants to be at Oxford,” he said. “But you’re just a train ride from Paris.”
Sitting a year later by the Seine, I thought to myself: how right he was; and how strange, that a book about dodos had brought me to this shining river. The sun had set, and the city’s lights cast distended orange shadows over the blue-black ripples. Paris, too, was an island. I looked at the water. It was a beautiful surface, of dark currents and gold-streaked gleams. I looked; and, half-forgotten pages turning in my mind, I wondered about the creatures stirring within.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“What do you like to read?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but it always makes me flinch. I am a reader—that is my identity before anything else, including writer, partner, or mother—but I have no idea how to answer that question.
First of all, just right off the bat, the question assumes that I am a coherent person from moment to moment with a consistent and legible taste in literature. That I chase after books which satisfy some sort of personal criteria for literary bliss, and as I read, I measure the pages in front of me against this ruler. Fair enough. One of my friends looks for books about messy, tangled family dynamics that end with all the loose strands woven in: The Nix by Nathan Hill. Another only reads books with a strong sense of place: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley or The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. A third prefers introspective or philosophical novels with a spiritual dimension: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. They wield these criteria like extensions of their names: “I am the one who reads [fill in the blank].” But I have no—and I mean no—such criteria. I’ll read anything.
But a very specific anything. I’ve never in my life read randomly. I’ve never—not once—walked into a bookstore and come out with a book I hadn’t heard of before. Usually I am in the midst of a reading project. Some of these are self-determined, like when I mined a vein about evolution and the link between animal behavior and ecosystem in The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner and The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. And some choose me, such as when Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet demanded that I read the novels of Christa Wolf. Sometimes I read to draw closer to a person—and sometimes that even works. My grandmother recently began reading again after emerging from a years-long depression, so I’ve been reading and sending to her a steady stream of David Balducci thrillers and novels about the Greatest Generation like John Crowley’s Four Freedoms.
Part of the problem is in the word “like,” that little heart we tap ten thousand times a day. I like lots of things, so many things, but I am not guided by what I like. I regularly read books that I know I’ll dislike, not to hate-read, but because I’m just plain curious—because there is something in there I need that is not pleasure.
After reading Claire Dederer’s memoir, Love and Trouble, and feeling disappointed by its surprisingly timid take on the dissatisfactions of middle-aged marriage, I picked up Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement, a novel about the rueful complications that ensue when a couple decides to open their marriage for six months. My suspicion that any chance of the characters developing true dimensionality would be sacrificed in the quest for a punchline was amply confirmed. The book read like a novel-length screenplay treatment with nary a moral qualm and, strangely, no sex. But that was entirely beside the point for my reading project. Female desire is having a literary moment—have you noticed?—and I wanted to know the content of that conversation. Now I know.
You can see how exceedingly rule-bound my reading is. And yet I still haven’t described it to you, haven’t even come close to a polite, conversational answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” It is a deeply uncomfortable subject for me.
We’ve come now to the real risk at the heart of any honest answer to this question, the social stakes of it all. I sound like an incorrigible snob: I can see right through all the books that most people like; I am better than they are; I am guided not by pleasure pleasure but by some higher impulse.
That’s not it, though. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between readers and Readers. Between people who read books, just as easy as that, and people who use books to build their entire selves. The distinction here has nothing to do with the number of books read per month, hierarchies of taste, or education. Those who are simply readers are people who are made happy by books, people who like to talk about what they’ve read, people for whom joining a book group makes sense, because it is straightforward for them to translate the solitary act of reading into a social connection.
Readers with a capital R, on the other hand, read from a sense of absence, of pursuit, of perturbation. Reading is too deeply personal to discuss with others, in part because it is the personal: reading as interiority. I read to listen to myself think. When a book is open in front of me, I am anonymous to the author, oblivious to my own face, and completely self-conscious: criticism as life.
As Pierre Bayard theorizes in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (a book whose mordant wisdom is not captured by that inapt title), reading must always entail loss. Bayard is about as far away from Roland Barthes’s plaisir du texte as a Frenchman can get. For him, we are forever searching for a book that can never precisely match our own “inner book,” what he calls a “phantasmagorical object that every reader live to pursue, of which the best books he encounters in his life will be but imperfect fragments, compelling him to continue reading.” And, for some of us, to begin writing.
Yet even those best books, the ones that interlock with our own need for them, are always receding from us, never again coinciding with the text we first read, disintegrating in memory. A constituent part of reading—for the Reader, at least—is this “anguish of madness.” I am reminded of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile, and the character Alexandra’s harrowing quest to inhabit the chamber containing every single book she’s ever read. Those of us who read to voice our own interior monologues are doomed—yet also privileged. Ours is an urgent project that will take a lifetime to complete, and our material will never be exhausted.
I’ve recently come up with a standard answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” and I experimented with it at a book club I visited when they read my book and at a dinner party with new friends. “I like novels with unreliable narrators,” I said. “Like me.” Both times I got puzzled looks and head tilts. Failed experiment. But you know what I mean, don’t you? You know what it feels like to be both disordered by and constructed of books, right? If the answer is yes, nod your head from behind your book.
What do I like to read? Anything, but not everything. What do I like to read? Books that I like to analyze. What do I like to read? I’ll know it when I see it. Or, better, I’ll become the person who wants to read that book when I see it.
Image: Wikimedia Commons