I have always been fascinated by books. I was not a toddler prodigy: I was dying to learn, but only pretended to read. I preferred the narrative to the pictures: my eyes were focused on the print even before I knew the letters. I memorized the stories and recited them to my dolls. I often quoted the hilarious fairy Flora in the Golden Book edition of Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty: “Silly fiddle-faddle!” I got in trouble for saying “Silly fiddle-faddle” at Mass, in response to the priest’s intonation of Dominus vobiscum. In my defense I was three.
My family was not bookish. No one in my family “modeled” reading, though my mother read to me: she was a mother who neither chatted nor played with her kids, except an occasional board game, and “No Monopoly, please, ever.” She knew books were important to me and saved money to finance my weekly jaunts to Iowa Book and Supply. My shelves were filled with Tolkien, Nancy Drew, E. Nesbit, The Chosen, Rosemary’s Baby, I Capture the Castle, The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mary Stewart’s Gothic novels and Arthur books. While she indulged my reading, the Heavy Father used to bellow at me to put down that book and go out and play.
Did my parents read? They had read. They did not read while they were raising a family. My mother’s favorite book was Gone with the Wind, but she’d read it years ago and we didn’t have a copy. My father had a few paperbacks in the storage room, John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, Updike’s Rabbit Run, and a few James Bonds. I remember being surprised by the racy covers. Had he read them?. My one literary conversation with him: he told me Little Women was overrated. I burst into tears. There was much bursting into tears when he was around. My mother seemed to suffer a low-level depression when he was home, self-medicating with soap operas, movie magazines, and shopping the sales. There was little conversation. His goal seemed to be to cause as much chaos as was possible in the course of a single half-hour meal.
It was the era of newspapers and magazines. Yes, there were books, in other people’s houses, not ours. Men hid behind newspapers when they didn’t want to talk. Occasionally my mother, grandmother, and I spent an afternoon reading McCall’s, Good Housekeeping, Life, Look, and Reader’s Digest. I skipped the housekeeping tips and recipes, but was fascinated by the fiction, the columns about marriage problems, and the letters to the editor. My mother was also very fond of movie magazines, but these were too trashy for my grandmother. Our neighbors had a magazine hoarding system: they filled their double garage with stacks of Time and National Geographic. What we remember from National Geographic: African women with long breasts and elongated necks. What we remember from Time: gory pictures of the Vietnam War.
This is a typical story of a reader, I would imagine. I had the reading gene. And yet I seldom admitted to reading. I can remember huddling over Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles in homeroom and refusing to tell a “popular” girl if it was “good.” “It’s all right.” Heresy! It was my favorite book. But you never knew with this cheerleader, whether she wanted a real conversation or an excuse to mock you in the hall. I moved in a gentler clique of poetry-spouting girls who wore John Lennon glasses. Later, I went to a university lab school, where everybody was bookish. I sat in front of my locker reading Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Doris Lessing, and The Diaries of Anais Nin.
People were not as self-conscious about emotions then as now. Parents had meltdowns. They yelled and screamed and then forgot about it. In general there was a lot of screaming on my street, at my house and around the corner. One of my favorite neighbors, Mrs. X, a professor’s wife and the mother of four children, had recently gone back to graduate school. Now that was a very big thing: she did not have a maid; she had a house, kids, and homework. She needed time to study. One day she lost it about the unmade beds upstairs and clothes that had been drop-kicked and were hanging from globes and bookcases: a tie hung suggestively from a carved pineapple on a four poster bed. Then there was the fact that she hadn’t seen her son W in days and it turned out he was in bed with his girlfriend. “Get up and do some laundry, dammit.” One of her kids said, “My retainer hurts like hell.” “I don’t care–wear it!” she would snap. “And hurry up. It’s time for your piano lesson.” “I HATE PIANO!”
We were separate from the university, orthodontia, and piano lessons. We had a different life-style. My mother, it was true, had her bachelor’s, but she was not pushy about grades: she said A’s and B’s, were fine, that she had gotten A’s and B’s. Then at my mother’s funeral, I was startled when the priest said she had been the valedictorian of her high school class. I can only think I would have known, and then I realized my snobbish sib had made it up to raise his/her status, knowing no one was alive to challenge him/her. This, yes, is the kind of thing that happens in our family. If it does not happen in your family, you are lucky.
What I loved about my mother: she thought I was beautiful, and in my later years even said I “looked good,” so I manage not quite to see what’s there, which is a blessing. She also had the impression that I was a “born teacher,” when in reality I would take a nap after work because I was too exhausted after four preparations and five classes to do more than read a mystery and make dinner. And then I’d be up at 5, correcting papers and making lesson plans, waiting for the weekend when I could get lost in a book.
When did I learn I was not the only intense reader in the world? Honestly, I never quite believe others read with as much intensity as I do. The evidence is there, but reading is solitary, and we do not have to concern ourselves with others’ readings. Unfortunately in grad school, when I knew many readers, they wanted to keep up with classical scholarship, and, believe me, many academic articles are tedious and poorly written, so there was less time to read Golden Age mysteries, let alone Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood. Oh, and forget those BBC Shakespeare plays they used to have on Sunday afternoon. My fellow student were having nervous breakdowns and dropping out of the program like flies. I myself developed a “sleeping disorder,” i.e., insomnia, and foolishly refused to take pills, so I had trouble concentrating with my grainy tired eyes, and though I loved translating Greek and Latin, I rarely did the extra reserve reading. I said “FUCK reserve reading and fuck scholarship!”indiscreetly at Nick’s Pub. I was a rebel.
Well into adulthood and past a certain age, my husband and I are both avid readers. Our backgrounds are similar, classics and comp lit. I wave him off to the beach on vacation and stay in the cottage and read Arnold Bennett’s Clayhanger trilogy, while he runs, lolls, or flies a kite on the beach. I am happy if I get through one big book on vacation, usually a Victorian classic. Oh, sure, some readers could read two huge Victorian classics. Jo Walton the science fiction writer says in What Makes This Book So Great that she reads six books a day. I can read six books in a week, if they are short books or if I’m skimming. But do I need to read more than one big book at the beach?
By the way, I just read Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan, and it is the most stunning new novel of the year. Does this mean the great writing is coming from the West not the East? Now there’s a novel thought!