I've been asked by a couple of people whether writing this blog has altered my reading habits. It hasn't, but writing it has altered the way I think about not just my reading, but everything I experience, making me see more clearly how thoughts and events and situations interconnect. It's one of the most pleasant side effects of regular nonfiction writing, a seemingly subconscious ordering of experience and grouping of ideas, a hoarding of questions and thoughts until a critical mass emerges into a full-blown essay.
That sort of hoarding has made me repeatedly return in my thoughts lately to a conversation I overheard on the L a month or two ago. Two women of about my age were on their evening commute. One was bound the next day for another city on a business trip. She asked the other woman whether she had any suggestions of a book she might want to read on the plane.
It was a casual mention, a bit of conversation as much as a request for suggestions. But the second woman's response was anything but casual. She positively erupted with suggestions. Had her friend read The Life of Pi? How about The Kite Runner? Memoirs of a Geisha? She might try In Her Shoes, although she should be warned that it opens with a very hot sex scene. But she'd like it if she'd read Candace Bushnell's Four Blondes—had she? What about The Devil Wears Prada? Or if she wanted non-fiction, she could try the memoir by Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or A Million Little Pieces, the Oprah book. Speaking of Oprah, an old book that she might really like is East of Eden; once you get into it, you can't put it down. Bel Canto is like that, too.
I've given you the short version. She overflowed with enthusiasm, recommending more than a dozen—maybe even two dozen—books that she'd enjoyed in the past year or two, covering, it seemed, most books that spent time on the front tables at Barnes and Noble. She described the books, and she linked them to one another, noting similarities, probing her friend for what she had read and enjoyed the way a good bookseller does, trying to find links to new suggestions.
Her friend, meanwhile, was clearly overwhelmed. She listened politely, and she may even have appreciated the effort. But it was without a doubt much more than she'd bargained for. She had been looking for a temporary distraction, something to make her time in the air pass—a book that, if it didn't grab her during her flight, she might not even finish. What her friend had supplied instead was the equivalent of a love letter to books themselves, almost embarrassing in its frank excitement. I imagine that almost none of the titles registered with her—unless her friend emailed her the next day, which seems likely—and she probably bought The Da Vinci Code at the airport and didn't think about any of this again.
But I did. I told Stacey about the conversation when I got home, and I kept thinking about it. The second woman's enthusiasm had been so infectious, had made me so happy, that I couldn’t forget it. No, the books weren't, for the most part, books that I was interested in. They weren't particularly daring or difficult choices, and in a hundred years, they'll probably all be forgotten. But they—and other books like them—were clearly an important part of her life. Books mattered to her, meant something to her, the way they mean something to me and my family and friends.
But why do they matter? What do I get from them? I hope that the early days of this blog have given you some idea of my answer to that question. When put on the spot, professional book people, from librarians to teachers to writers themselves, tend to point to the utility of books. The very genre of the "Why Read Literature?" essay lends itself to the pedagogical and improving. Books teach us things. They help us understand other people. They make us better people.
Those aren't bad answers. They're all, to some extent, true. But focusing on the utility of books tends to privilege books with something specific to teach, makes them a means rather than an end. I think there's more to reading than that—that's why, to some extent, I don't care what people read, so long as they're reading. The act itself, the focusing of the attention that it forces, is powerful and important, making possible an unmatched inwardness that is, at the same time, not self-centered.
Good writing, fiction or nonfiction, has an effect on me that's almost mystical. It gets deep inside my brain; if I'm reading late at night, I tend to carry the cadences of the writer's style, his very language, into my dreams. I dream in words and sentences. Books open up time for me, repaying my actual investment of time a hundredfold. They temporarily negate the self, take me away from my being and my surroundings like no meditation I've ever come across. In doing so, they open worlds of experience that are closed to me, either by my temperament or my era or my luck, good or bad. They make me think, and rethink, assumptions, make me question my understanding of people, history, myself.
When I try to boil down Iris Murdoch's fiction to one sentence, it's the injunction, "Pay closer attention!" At their best, that's what books force on me, a habit of thought that is open to the oddity of the world, its patterns, recurrences, and novelties. Does it matter to my life to learn that Robert Graves, after watching his mistress Laura Riding say, "Toodle-oo, chaps!" and leap out a third-floor window, raced down the stairs to help her, decided he couldn't live without her, and threw himself out the second-floor window? Or that both survived the fall and were ministered to by Graves's wife? Or that the candiru, an Amazon fish, has been known to swim up the male urethra, with disastrous results? Or that Tolstoy wrote Hadji Murat even as he was denouncing all fiction as a waste of time?
Of course it doesn't. But I wouldn't give back the time I spent discovering those nuggets. The world is a strange place, and people have responded to it in uncountable ways. In the midst of a long, gray winter workweek, reading keeps that fact constantly in front of me. Somewhere in the 3,000 pages of my favorite book, Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time, the narrator relates a moment when, describing a book to another character, he watches the person's mind more or less glaze over, clearly not understanding why the book—or any book—might be worth discussing. Books, the narrator reflects, are unconvertible assets. You can only give them to those who have them; they're of no use to those who don't understand their value already.
He's overstating for effect, but he's not terribly far off the mark. As someone who compulsively buys and reads books, I frequently hear, when people enter our house, "Did you really read all these?" The answer is, of course not—there will always be more books on my shelves than I've read. And there will be many that I've read more than once. That extravagant plenty is part of the nature of reading: there's always another book waiting.
The question itself is often a sign that books are not central to that person's life. And if they're not by the time one is an adult, they're unlikely to become so. There are times—when they're children, even teenagers or college students—when you can truly give someone books, when books are, temporarily, a convertible asset. It's a brief window, but it's there, and we're the richer for those people who knew us at those times and handed us a book, read aloud to us, or simply read to themselves, with pleasure, in our presence.
Those people didn't just change my life; they really and truly gave it to me. Nothing would be as rich without what I've read. If I can convey even a tiny fraction of that on this blog, I'll be satisfied.