Several months ago, I was sitting quietly in my office’s lunchroom reading, my usual lunchtime activity. On this particular day, three or four others were sitting at their own tables, also reading. As it happens, all of us were editors. (I work at an education association with a large publishing department.) A co-worker, who organizes events for the association, walked in, observed the scene, and asked loudly, “How can you all stand reading at lunch? You have to read for work all day!”
I don’t believe anyone actually responded. How can you respond to something like that? (I mused later that I could have asked, “How can you stand coming down here and talking to people? You have to talk to people all day!”) Of course, the obvious answers have to do with the fact that people who are drawn into editing often like to read, and reading and editing manuscripts is altogether different from reading finished work that has nothing to do with our association.
This week, I thought back to this incident when someone sent me a link to Jonathan Veitch’s convocation address at Occidental College. Veitch says that after he graduated from college, he noticed that many of his friends who had been serious students did not have books in their new post-college homes. Reading was no longer part of their lives. I can’t imagine a life without reading. Even though I haven’t always read as much as I have this year, I’ve always had a book on the go, and I’ve always had plenty of books in the house. Why is reading so important to me, when others seem able to take or leave it?
In the film version of Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins, one character says that “we read to know we’re not alone.” That is a large piece of why I read. As a socially awkward young girl, I read lots of YA fiction about girls who struggled to make friends. It helped me immensely to know that I wasn’t the only one. Even now, books like Portrait of a Lady move me in part because I can see myself and my own struggles within them. I know that I’m not alone, and I get a new perspective on how to think about my life.
But my reading is not all about me. I also read to learn about places and people who aren’t like me. Up until two years ago, I had never traveled outside the United States (unless you count Niagara Falls, Canada, which I don’t because I could see the United States the whole time I was there). Books provided a window to worlds I hadn’t been able to see for myself. I realized how important this was several years ago, when one of my friends who has traveled to and lived in many different places called me one of her more “worldly” friends, meaning that I know about other places and always want to know more. Reading is what did that.
In the Occidental College address, Veitch speaks of “wonder cabinets” filled with items that 16th- and 17th-century explorers brought back from their travels:
Some of the items on display in the wonder cabinets were patently false: mermaid’s tails, drawings of two-headed men, fierce Amazons and fantastical beasts. But all of the items—real or false (and often it was hard to tell the difference)—were treated as objects of fascination, the subjects of lengthy discussion and even reverie.
I’d like to propose that you think of your bookshelf that way—as something of a wonder cabinet filled with exotic ideas, maps of continents that never existed, language as gorgeous and iridescent as the shells brought back from the South Seas. The immediate utility of these things may not be readily apparent, but they are prods to the imagination which encourage us to think beyond the well-trodden ground of our contemporaries.
I love that idea. My bookshelf is where I store my wonders. I realize that books aren’t the only way to understand ourselves or the world. I have many dear friends who aren’t readers but who are interested in the world, but for me, nothing engages my mind and soul like a book. That’s why I’m a reader. How about you?
P.S. Thanks to all who stopped by during Book Blogger Appreciation Week. It was great fun discovering new blogs. Like others, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed by all that’s out there, but it’s great to see that there is so much conversation about books on the Web.
Notes from a Reading Life
- Ice Land by Betsy Tobin. A fun read about Norse mythology and Icelandic history.
- Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Brilliant, but excessive.
- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Jon Berendt on audio.
- The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Booker shortlister #2 for me. My first Waters novel. I’m hoping to finish this today.
- The Ode Less Traveled by Stephen Fry. Lessons in writing poetry. I’m writing tercets about tercets.
- Comfort Me with Apples by Ruth Reichl on audio. A foodie memoir from the library.
- Vanilla Beans and Brodo by Isabella Dusi. A memoir about life in Tuscany. Reading for book club.
- Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This seems to be the current favorite to win the Booker prize, and it will be my first Mantel.
- The Harrowing by Robert Dinsdale. Via Bookmooch. I first learned about this WWI novel at Reading Matters.
- Crossed Wires by Rosy Thornton. Copy from author. Despite the aggressively pink cover, the reviews I’ve seen lead me to believe that this could be a nice light read for after the Booker-thon is over or when I’m working on my historical theology paper later this fall.
- The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. In the comments on my Ice Land review, Ann said that this YA books with roots in Norse myth scared her as a college student. After Ice Land, I want to read more Norse myth, and I love a good scare.
Books to Remember
- Unbelievable: Investigations into Ghosts, Poltergeists, Telepathy, and other Unseen Phenomena from the Duke Parapsychology Laboratory by Stacy Horn. Eva at A Striped Armchair didn’t love this because it was more focused on telepathy than on ghosts, but I’m intrigued by that idea.
- The Moon of Gomrath by Alan Garner. The sequel to The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
- Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. Nonfiction about a man with a canoe, Hurricane Katrina, and the upsetting events that followed. Reviewed at Books to the Ceiling.
- Gabriel Josipovici. Litlove’s review of After and Making Mistakes is the first I’ve heard of this author, but I must read him now.
- Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer. I almost always enjoy Krakauer’s writing, and this book sounds like an interesting, albeit upsetting, one that is as much about media manipulation as about Tillman’s tragic death in Iraq.
- Fairy Tale by Alice Thomas Ellis. I remember wanting to read Ellis’s Sin Eater years ago, but I can’t remember if I ever actually found it. This review at Desperate Reader reminded me of her work.
- I’m Looking Through You by Jennifer Finney Boylan. Eva of A Striped Armchair was swept away by this memoir of a transgendered woman’s childhood in a haunted house.