Book Ends


I am not sure why but the reading I do over holiday break is always the most delicious.  On any given break I generally devour six or seven titles.  Maybe it's because the weather is cold and fishing out of the question.  Maybe it's just the relief from grading, but every year I look forward to this four week mid-winter book binge.  Part of its attraction is the idea of resuming my own secret reading life. 

Several years ago I read an essay by the novelist Jonathan Franzen.  As someone who derives his living from readers, he had long worried about the demise of a reading public. By chance, however, he met a sociology professor who for years had been studying people's reading habits.  Whenever this professor spotted people in public reading serious literature, she interviewed them on how they became a reader. Turns out devoted readers fall into two groups. The first grew up in households where reading was the norm. The parents read, encouraged the kids to read, and the house was often stuffed with books and talk about books.

The second group, greatly smaller in number, was different.  Here kids became secret readers. They didn't grow up in reading families, but they discovered reading as a form of escape. They often hid how much they were reading from their parents and friends, but they read intensely and with devotion. These kids tended to be more socially-isolated and introverted. Books were a way to connect to the larger world without the awkwardness of social exchange.

The social environment for this second group of readers didn't seem to matter or have any effect on their becoming readers. These people were going to read no matter what. Franzen concluded from this that there will always be some small, hardcore group of people who will read despite what happens.

Upon reading this essay I recognized myself as part of this smaller, hardcore secret group.  I was not raised in a literary home.  My father never read anything but the want-ads and my mother's tastes ran to bodice-rippers (Love’s Sweet Savage Surrender, Forbidden Passion in Paradise).  Even so, I don’t think I ever hid my reading as a kid.  I was neither encouraged nor dissuaded.  Hell, no one paid enough attention to what I was doing to notice.  I just read what I wanted.  I read idiosyncratically.  I read good stuff, I read trash.  One thing would lead to the next.  There was no plan.
I recall reading Paul Brinkman’s The Great Escape in the fifth grade (probably because I liked the movie) and it led me to read more books about prison breaks: The Count of Monte Cristo, Papillon, The  Wooden Horse, a biography of Harriet Tubman.  Around the age of 13, I got interested in the movie actor Erroll Flynn for some reason and read his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which led me to read several trashy biographies of Flynn, one claiming he was Nazi spy. 

Early in his life Flynn had been a sailor in the South Pacific and somehow this led me to reading Sterling Hayden’s rather surprisingly good novel Voyage and then to Hayden’s autobiography (also good).  Hayden mentioned how important Conrad had been to him, so off I went on a Conrad binge.  One of Conrad’s short stories pointed me toward Tolstoy, whom I swallowed whole when I was 19 or 20.  Tolstoy led me to Chekov and Chekov into an interest in the Moscow Art Theater and the works of Stanislavsky...

I didn’t start college until I was 23, so from the age of five I had been simply wandering aimlessly from interest to interest, author to author.  I never discussed books.  I just read them indiscriminately.  It was something I did on my own, in private, in secret, with no direction or purpose. 

And every year, after the grades are turned in, the last paper read and the last email sent, I like to get back to this original project.  

Comments

Anti-Dada said…
I love it when you get romantic.
Anonymous said…
here, here!

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