I am in love with this book. I just started it yesterday, but it’s making me dance inside.
Anne Fadiman culls the column she edited at American Scholar for this collection of seventeen writers revisiting books they loved earlier in life. I'm a fan of hers - I've read her other two books of essays: At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays, and Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, as well as The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a non-fiction account of a Hmong girl with profound seizure disorder and the differing ways in which the Hmong and Western doctors deal with illness. That one will break your heart. More than once. So she's a great writer. She's so great a writer.
Her own introductory essay is wonderful. At times, when I’m very into an essay (doesn’t happen as much with fiction, but it does occasionally), I’ll actually take off into other places – not from boredom, but because something in the essay has sparked something in my own imagination. This was such an essay – her introduction is framed by her re-reading C.S. Lewis’ “A Horse and His Boy” from the Narnia chronicles to her eight-year old son. She’s shocked by it’s casual racism and sexism, something she hadn’t seen before, but by the end is rapt in a good story that still can touch her even though she knows that parts of it are now to her offensive. And she sees it again through the eyes of her son, who just wants a good yarn.
In the meantime she meditates a bit on readers, as does at least the first essayist (I'm only half-way through the second essay). Reading is a solitary activity, and one in which the reader has to on some level prefer the company of imaginary people to real ones. The joy she describes in a good book, though, is one I’ve palpably felt; I’m also a re-reader. She argues that as kids we become what we’re reading, that we are easier able to mold ourselves than when we’re more solid adults – as we age a lot of us move to non-fiction, as it doesn’t ask of us to pour ourselves into another’s mold as fiction might.
It’s an interesting idea. I was thinking of it in relation to War and Peace, which I’m still reading (until January). I was trying to pinpoint that emotion I felt while reading it, which is different than a non-fiction book. I feel in a novel that I walk through, and into, a world . I look through the eyes of the character and see what they are seeing – perhaps that’s why I am more emotionally drawn to books than movies somewhat. In a memoir I can feel something deeply, but it’s usually empathy. In a novel, many times I’m feeling through a character – it’s a curious other empathy. In War & Peace, I can see Andrei Bolkonsky from outside as perhaps a cold, judgmental, distanced man; at the same time I am feeling from the inside his hurt, injury, and worldview. His actions make sense and I can see through his eyes. And it’s not empathy, it feels like an actual feeling. I’m stepping into the driver’s seat, even though I know it’s all a simulation. I do love that about books.
This book made me remember mye own obsessive reading as a kid. David Samuels, in his essay on Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” (coincidentally the only Salinger book I’ve read - I always feel dorky for never having read Catcher in the Rye. I've tried a few times. Oh well. I don't even remember this book too well - time for a re-read.) talks about kid readers as being the unhappy ones, or from a difficult family situation. I don’t think that’s true for everyone, but I can relate. There’s something about being a reader. I’ve talked to people who don’t read for pleasure, and it’s clear for most it begins early. I’m sure for Samuels it was an escape from an unhappy situation, but it can just as easily be an escape from what feels like endless boredom as a child as well, from the routine of daily life, into a world of adventure.
I remember reading “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” over and over in the 4th grade, rotating with “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler”, which I read on the bus to school, reading about Claudia and Jamie’s bus ride to school during which they hatched a plan to run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from the also far away Greenwich, Jamie counting his change. GreenWitch, I thought it was. I remember reading “A Horse and His Boy” along with all the Narnia books the year my parents were getting divorced. Prince Caspian I took out on the back patio in Omaha, laying on a plastic covered metal lounge chair – the kind that made the ratchet sound when you adjusted them - in the shade while my mother sunbathed in a brown bikini covered in Bain de Soleil. I remember her being so sad, and that book being the most boring in the series. Maybe it was just hard to concentrate. In my twenties and early 30’s I read “Howards End” every summer for 7 years. Howards End I remember, but all I can remember of Mrs. Frisby was that the lab looked like my 4th grade classroom, and the grass like the grasses in the fields at the end of our block. I wonder how it would read now? A lot of times when I'm finished with a book I don't remember much plot, but I don't forget the feelings. I’m excited about what these authors remember and remember to love about something that was once important enough to in some cases form a world view around.
This also makes me think about reading itself –the romance of it. I don’t know why it sticks in my mind, but a friend of mine told me once how her high school speech teacher described the best thing about her relationship with her husband being that they would sit and read together. And one day when I was living in New York, I was walking down Lafayette right below Houston and saw two men reading the morning paper at a café, one of them absent-mindedly stroking the other’s forearm. The intimacy and affection struck me deeply and is still burned in my mind, but also that they were reading. Reading is intimate and old to me – to be tethered to someone while off exploring other worlds, surfacing to share what treasure you may have found, is a beautiful thing.
While I was reading the introduction yesterday at breakfast, I looked up and saw a woman sitting opposite her husband start to laugh and laugh while thumping the spine of the open Terry Pratchett book she had been reading in preparation of sharing with him what she had found so entertaining. His t-shirt said “Life is Short” on the back. It’s true, and that’s why we have books.