Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On Reading

Francis Bacon once famously observed that "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." He might have gone one step further and mentioned that some books are devoured in great, real-world-obliterating, dizzyness-inducing chunks. I've been thinking recently about the books that have shaped me as a reader and a person. Two I have already mentioned are the Tao Te Ching , by Lao Tsu, and Allegiances, by William Stafford. But the other day I was reading through some posts by John Etorre in his blog Working with Words and ran across this quotation from Proust:

There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we believe we left without having lived them, those we spent with a favorite book. Everything that filled them for others, so it seemed, and that we dismissed as a vulgar obstacle to a divine pleasure; the game for which a friend would come to fetch us at the most interesting passage; the troublesome bee or sun ray that forced us to lift our eyes from the page or to change position; the provisions for the afternoon snack that we had been made to take along and that we left beside us on the bench, without touching while above our head the sun was diminishing in force in the blue sky; the dinner we had to return home for, and during which we thought only of going up immediately afterward to finish the interrupted chapter, all those things which reading should have kept us from feeling anything but annoyance at, it has on the contrary engraved in us so sweet a memory of (so much more precious to our present judgment than what we read then with such love), that if we still happen today to leaf through those books of another time, it is for no other reason than that they are the only calendars we have kept of days that have vanished, and we hope to see reflected on their pages the dwellings and pond which no longer exist.

That quotation seems to have spun me off into another thought-stream: I've been thinking about my early days as a reader, and what made me a reader in the first place. (I wasn't really aware of the stimulus at first. I had written much of this post before I opened my commonplace book this morning and saw the Proust quotation where I had pasted it several days ago. It's funny how the subterranean streams of consciousness burble and flow.)

My mother and my father were both voracious readers. My mother loved mystery magazines and mystery novels; it was not unusual for her to read one in a single night. My father read the newspaper from cover to cover pretty much every day of his life, and subscribed to a number of magazines, from The New Yorker to Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. From the time I was old enough to be award of what was going on, both of my parents would read out loud to me. After dinner my father would often read to me the Thornton W. Burgess books, which were serialized in the New York Telegram and Sun, and featured animal characters like Peter Rabbit and Reddy the Fox and Johnny Chuck and Bowser the Hound. At bedtime, my mother would read from A.A. Milne, and later, from Kipling's Jungle Books.

Later, when I was able to read myself, I found I could often squeeze a few minutes extra before I was called to bed; if I sat reading quietly if was entirely possible that my parents, each caught up in their own reading worlds, would not notice that it was past 8:00. One of my clearest memories of boyhood is of playing on the living room floor while my mother and father sat across from one another in front of the fireplace in our living room on Croton Avenue in Mt. Kisco, NY. Here is the scene as I reconstructed it a poem some years ago:

62 Croton Avenue

We are gathered together by the fire:
Father in his easy chair, hidden
behind the evening Herald,
Mother with her feet up on the hassock,
devoted to her Ellery Queen.
I sprawl on the rug, dividing myself
between Treasure Island and the flames
which dance orange and blue around
the branches of the summer's apple tree,
now split and stacked over the andirons.

On my back, I scan the rough cut beams
which anchor the ceiling like the ribs
of a schooner. The lamp above my mother's head
sheds light reflected in panes of blackened glass.
Rolling over, I look at the clock on the mantle.
Quarter to eight. Soon, my mother will put aside
her mystery, my father will rise to lift another
log onto the fire, and I will be sent to bed.
But now there is still time for a few more pages.
I draw closer to the hearth, settle myself
at my mother's feet, and begin again to read.

So my parents obviously shaped my development as a reader by their own example as readers and by their encouragement of me, which took many forms: reading out loud to me, taking me frequently to the library, making sure to give me books on my birthday and at Christmas. But, thinking back on it now, I see there was another major influence. He's certainly not the only one; I was addicted during my youth to many writers and many kinds of books. But the first one who really grabbed me and wouldn't let go was Walter Farley.

I can remember with great clarity the feeling of total absorption I experience when I was reading about the adventures of Alec Ramsay and The Black. It is a feeling that I loved at that time, the feeling that Proust describes, of being swept out of my life and my world into another world of mystery and adventure seemed like the purest kind of magic. (It helped that when I finished one book, there was another to follow; Farley wrote 18 of them at least, and after his death in 1989 his son kept the series going.) It was an experience I sought out again and again as a child, and later as a high school and college student, and throughout adulthood to the present day. And I have to give at least some credit to Walter Farley for creating that magic for me. (I just read a Wikipedia entry on Farley and discovered, to my profound satisfaction as a teacher—expecially since it confirms what I was arguing in yesterday's post—that Farley began The Black Stallion in high school and finished in while still in college.)

Obviously, not every book has that kind of an impact. There are books I find myself working at reading, but manage to complete. There are books that I love at the start, but which fail to hold my interest. There are books that I like very much when I am reading them, but when I put them down, I don't find myself drawn back to them. (I include Salmon Rushdie in this category. He's clearly a brilliant writer and I enjoy the pyrotechnics on the page when I happen to pick him up, but when I put him down I do not find myself circling back in five minutes, or five days, to pick up up again.) There are some few books written in long series which sustain me, as The Black Stallion books did, through six months and more of nearly constant reading; I'm thinking here of Patrick O'Brian's majestic 21-volume Aubrey-Maturin series , which I've read through twice and am looking forward to reading again; and of Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles and House of Niccolo series, which are by any measure among the literary wonders of the world. (I found out about Dunnett only because I chanced across an end-paper essay in the NYT Book Review, the thesis of which was that she was among the greatest authors that almost no one has read. An assessment I now agree with.)

And I'm enough my mother's son to be seduced by the pleasures of well-crafted mysteries and pulp fiction, as for example the series of novels by Lee Child featuring ex-Army MP Jack Reacher as the reluctant hero of any number of teeth-clenchingly riveting adventures, or the Charlie Bradshow series by the notoriously prolific Stephen Dobyns, who is in his other writerly lives a college professor, a poet, and a "serious" novelist.

I'm often reading six or eight books at a time, in the hope that one of them will turn out to be the one that sweeps me up and takes me for a ride. Right now I have a stack of books behind my easy chair, and I am hopeful that one of them is The One which will open that magic door once again. It worries me that many of my students now report that they don't like to read, or worse, that they love to read but "don't have the time" because of the demands of homework and other school activities. Not to mention television, video games, and mySpace. My life has been immeasurably enriched by what I have read in my lifetime. I'd like to be able to share that with my students, but it seems to be getting harder. I do admissions interviews for my school, and one of my standard questions is "What are you reading?" The majority of students I talk to aren't reading anything that is not assigned to them in school, and of the ones who are, the majority is reading either Harry Potter or Lemony Snicket. I don't have anything against either; in fact, I've read all the Potter books with enjoyment myself. But I don't think they suffice, and I wonder about what kind of a world it is going to be when all reading is merely functional. S.I. Hayakawa once wrote,

In a very real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read... It is true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish.

Director/producer Sidney Pollack, speaking at the Birmingham University commencement exercises in June of 2003, takes it one step further, arguing—eloquently, I think—that reading not only enriches our fund of experience, it enriches our ability to understand and communicate and empathize with one another:

I can be a black housewife. I can be a king. I can be a 19th century fur trapper. I can be a CIA spy. I can be a warrior. I can learn what it feels like to be tried and convicted, to confess, to win the beautiful girl, lose the beautiful girl. It’s a way of understanding the world that functions beyond intellect and it teaches and touches through feeling and experience even when the experience is purely that of the imagination. Compassion finally is the great gift of literature. Fiction, and by that I mean the aesthetic creation of all artificial worlds, must persuade you to interpret the world through compassion.
I guess that's the holy grail of reading, the hope that I have for my students, and for myself, that reading (and, one might add, writing as well) can make us not only happier, but wiser. It's not always going to happen, but it's something, in this holiday season, to wish for.

(Additional random note: I received a copy of the NFAA's Young Arts magazine today. It included a short article by Elliot Eisner entitled 10 Lessons the Arts Can Teach. They're clear and well-stated, and they all make good sense to me.)

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