I do not remember learning to read. It has always seemed like a biological process, involuntary and essential. Consuming a story, absorbing a character—here was wisdom and pleasure, grief and sustenance, delivered a word at a time.
I learned how to be a person from books. They taught me about love, and heartbreak, what it is to be destroyed and redeemed. Books are how I found family, understanding, and friends. They were my way forward in the world. And they are the way I mark time, the events of my life inextricably tied to what I was reading at any given moment, my own history unfolding alongside the teetering stack of books by my bed.
The books I remember most from childhood are the ones I sneaked off my mother’s bookshelf and read clandestinely when I ought to have been asleep. I tore through Judith Rossner’s Looking For Mr. Goodbar, Attachments, and Emmeline in a hot rush when I was 11, and swooned willingly into a dark, delicious underworld of fatal one-night stands, graphic sexual liaisons with co-joined twins, and incest. I hated being a child, the helplessness of it, and the dependency. And here was adulthood, laid out in all its glittering darkness.
As a teenager, the stack by my bed was a lavender-scented shrine to angst and longing, terror and drama. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar atop F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby atop J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye atop ee cummings’s Selected Poems 1923-1958 atop W.H. Auden’s Collected Poems atop Pablo Neruda’s Twenty Love Poems atop Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Stephen King’s The Shining, The Stand, and The Dead Zone. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and The Illustrated Man. Roald Dahl’s Kiss Kiss.
In college, my interests turned to the theatre, to the Transcendentalists, to mythology and world religions. My mattress was on the floor then, in an actual writer’s garret I rented in an old Victorian house. I filled that room with paper and ink, bourbon and books and cigarette smoke. I read into the small hours of the morning, tucked under a thick down comforter my mother sent when she realized I was deadly serious about living in a drafty room in upstate New York in the middle of winter. My bed was ringed by tomes on Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Taoism. There were at least three versions of the Bible. Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. The Odyssey. The Iliad. The collected works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Shakespeare. Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, and Aristotle. Hundreds of slim plays from Dramatists Play Service. I directed Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary my junior year, and I still have the production book I made.
My 20s were a lost decade, a watercolor wash of depression, debilitating anxiety, a misguided marriage to my college boyfriend and our brutal divorce. I stuffed myself with books during those years, desperately trying to feel something, anything. Of the hundreds of books I read, a few stand out vividly. I read and re-read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, adopting the tragic comfort of “so it goes” as a mantra. I found Wally Lamb in those years, and took solace in the self-engineered redemption of Delores Price in She’s Come Undone. Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion held out a gossamer hope that there might still be a passionate love waiting for me, somehow. Ursula Hegi’s Stones From the River gave me courage. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History felt like a long-lost friend, one who spoke my language of wasted youth.
I started my 30s single for the first time in my adult life, living alone in a quirky Brooklyn brownstone apartment, fragile from the emotional slaughter of dismantling the life I shared with my now ex-husband. I was made of glass, all eyes. I went to therapy. I went to the gym. I slept with a lot of men, some of them kind, others not so much. And I read. Wally Lamb again, at first, losing myself in the raw emotion and reassuring bulk of I Know This Much Is True. And then women authors, for the first time really, a rich diet of female voices that nourished me like bone broth. Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies showed me there was a writer inside me. Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed made me laugh out loud with tears streaming down my face, for here was a chubby Jewish girl with boy troubles and Daddy issues, and my God, how I could relate. I gathered women writers to me, filled my house with them – Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and her best friend Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, and then Ann’s story of their friendship and Lucy’s death, Truth & Beauty. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Jazz. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, The Temple of My Familiar, and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Poet Wislawa Szymborska’s People on a Bridge and View With a Grain of Sand. Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing and Black and Blue. Diane Ackerman’s A Natural History of Love, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary did what I believed to be the impossible – it let in a little light. It made me feel better.
I am in my mid-40s now, married to a man whose goodness takes my breath away, the mother of a daughter who is the purest joy I have ever known. The stack of books by the side of my bed has been replaced by a Kindle, a device I find wondrous for the way it inexhaustibly feeds my voracious hunger for reading. But there are still books in my house, to serve as talismans. I have five copies of The Catcher in the Rye with the red cover, a small collection, but one that gives me deep pleasure. I am still touched by Holden Caulfield, his vulnerability and sadness. I keep To Kill A Mockingbird nearby, Atticus Finch standing in for the father I longed for as a child. A copy of E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, inscribed by the man who gave it to me, the first man I loved after my divorce, whom I still think of with such affection. I have Auden’s poetry on my shelf, and cummings, and Neruda, and Whitman – the same copies that sat on my bedside table in high school. Dorothy Parker’s Complete Poems and Complete Stories. My old college copy of Joseph Campbell. I run my hands over them sometimes, and think of how we’ve traveled, how far we’ve come.
Right now I am reading Anne Lamott’s Small Victories, a meditation on forgiveness and renewal, transformation and love. I read late into the night still, my Kindle light aglow, my husband asleep beside me, my daughter tucked into bed down the hall. I read, and I am full.
Can you trace your reading history through the decades? What does it say about your development as a reader or writer or person?