Thinking further about why I read. In my own experience, there was one great reason from the beginning: to escape. I remember as a child feeling so afraid, standing in my room, knowing that most people didn’t feel this way, but that I was afraid of what people would do to me. I read whatever I found on the shelves in the basement of our farmhouse, Swiss Family Robinson, Sherlock Holmes stories, an old book about heroic horses and dogs (I loved that book) and even The Cross and the Switchblade — yes, New York gangstas finding jesus in the ’70s! I have a poem I copied out from kindergarten, it was The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, that one just enchanted me (‘The owl & the pussycat went to sea, in a beautiful pea green boat’) and I also copied out the story from one of those Mr. Men books about Mr. Tickle! I made up stories in my head too, largely romantic nonsense, but all mine.
In many ways, my mom showed me how to be a close reader. She has endlessly studied her bible over the years, not just telling us the stories fit for children, but getting us to read the whole things ourselves. We would discuss translations and different interpretations of a passage or word and how the translation in this or that version affected the meaning. When I finally came to read In Search of Lost Time, I felt at home with a long complex story like that, debating which translation to read, which edition to buy, I felt I had found a book to absorb me for years, just as my mother had. The other handy thing about so much of the bible learning was that in university, I’d be the only one to catch every biblical reference in books. The professor asking, what significance is there in this character (from To the Lighthouse actually) throwing his bread on the water? Up went my hand. It’s from the Psalms. As Michael Dirda has noted, the bible definitely is one of the patterning sources for Western literature. (And certainly has many gruesomely entertaining stories that I enjoyed as a kid!)
The other thing my mother does is talk and talk. Endlessly and usually about herself. Her own stories, her past. I grew up a listener, while telling myself my own stories inside. As I grew older and began to find great English teachers, one of whom introduced me to The Secret Garden, I clung to books more and more. They were a silent place for me alone. I didn’t have to listen, I could join the story. Mary Lennox’s story in the garden could be my story, in an inner secret garden, safe where no one else could be, in my imagination. My mother’s stories were narcissistic, they kept everyone out, at an admiring or pitying distance. But books let me in, to some place better. I could play with the sisters in Little Women and the Boxcar Children (I read absolutely loads of those books, I suppose an American version of Enid Blyton maybe!) and explore bravely with Nancy Drew.
Books were what gave me a self. They gave me friends who understood and the hope that someday I would meet better people like that. I wasn’t taught to be autonomous or independent or strong, it was all about self sacrificing and clinginess. But books gave me different ideas, they gave me thoughts of my own, dreams, they gave me such richness. In high school when my teacher talked about going to university to study English, I felt lit up. That is what I want.
In the years at university, trying too hard to become something I wasn’t (a school teacher), I gradually let books go. I had to study, there wasn’t time. I felt lit up again studying To the Lighthouse, but my marks weren’t high enough, I had to stop reading for fun. (I don’t ever ever recommend doing this in university, by the way!) After eventually falling into depression, I finally remembered the books. And thus had begun my long climb out of my past. Facing the darkness and sorrow of my childhood, looking for a way to tell my own story, looking for the people who shared it. I found them in books, Portia in The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Dorothea in Middlemarch. Jane Eyre, of course. Young girls and what happened when they tried to grow up.
Books have been my salvation. They’ve given me a soul, a chance to be myself. They give me space, they let me grow. They’ve shown me how to grow stronger and wiser. They’ve shown me that my story and my voice matter, even just written on a page for myself. They’ve shown me that my perspective matters, even as it changes. They don’t try to hold me back. Through books I learned and continue to learn how to live, how to be. I left behind the stifling confines of The One Book written in commanding men’s voices, to find the many books by women and men that were open and accepting, that showed many views of life, that welcomed me into the great conversation of the ages.
Now I read to be comforted, I read to learn, I read for enlightenment, to laugh or be changed, I read for inspiration, I read to find the people and stories who will see me through. I read to heal. I read to meet the most original people, authors, creators. I read to think deeply. I read to feel my independence, my freedom, to pick what I want. I don’t read from a bible reading plan, with its ordered days by chapter and verse. I read to be myself, to keep my insides alive. I read for life.
Also, today I found a way to continue with Virginia Woolf. Last year I tried reading her more quickly, just to be able to get through The Waves and not drown in the poetic excess of it. But today, perhaps because it can still be ‘short story Saturday’ from time to time, I read a few short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, who helped me to figure out the right pace in which to read Woolf (they were friends), the way to pay more attention. To read closely, slowly, alertly. I was inspired to pick up my copy of her Collected Stories by 20th Century Vox and her post on Bowen’s WW2 stories called The Demon Lover. Demon lovers, not really my thing, but then I reread my favourite story of hers, called ‘Daffodils.’ It reminds me a bit of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill.’
A gust of wind rushed up the street, whirling her skirts up round her like a ballet-dancer’s, and rustling the Reckitts-blue paper round the daffodils. The slender gold trumpets tapped and quivered against her face as she held them up with one hand and pressed her skirts down hastily with the other. She felt as though she had been enticed into a harlequinade by a company of Columbines who were quivering with laughter at her discomfiture; and looked round to see if anyone had witnessed her display of chequered moirette petticoat and the inches of black stocking above her boots. But the world remained unembarrassed.
… Miss Murcheson remembered that her mother would be out for tea, and quickened her steps in anticipation of that delightful solitude. The silver birch tree that distinguished their front garden slanted beckoning her across the pavement. She hesitated, as her gate swung open, and stood looking up and down the road. She was sorry to go in, but could not resist the invitation of the empty house. She wondered if tomorrow would fill her with so strange a stirring as today. Soon, in a few months, it would be summer and there would be nothing more to come. Summer would be beautiful, but this spring made promise of a greater beauty than summer could fulfil; hinted at a mystery which other summers had evaded rather than explained.
… She was bewildered by them; could not fathom the depths of their cinema-bred romanticism.
… They had awaited a disclosure intimate and personal. The donor of those last year’s daffodils had taken form, portentous in their minds. But she had told them nothing, given them the stone of her abstract, colourless idealism while they sat there, open-mouthed for sentimental bread.
Sigh. Now I wish I could have Elizabeth Bowen week, to get you all reading her! She’s on those 1001 best of lists and a few of her books are still on the shelves even in western Canada, but I haven’t found many ardent fans of hers, what’s up with that? Clearly she needs some love. Maybe there is an Elizabeth Bowen group I could join, internet help me out! Or maybe I’ll just copy Laura’s Musings and create my own Favourite Authors page for her and other worthy members, where I may wax lyrical about their many wonders!