The Magic and Joy of Reading
Reading is a most curious and fantastic act.
How do we account for the recognition of ink blots set in a certain pattern on a page in a way that corresponds to noises made by an exquisite choreography of lips, tongue and larynx?
How did we come to adopt the universal practice of training our children to recognize and order those blots, beginning barely out of infancy, before the basic biological function of controlled toileting is even mastered?
And then there is the visceral response to those blots as we piece them together, run them through our interpretive sieve, and then find ourselves engaged, body and soul, with the stories they tell.
This ability of the written word to transport us out of time, into another world, another circumstance, another set of characters for whom we come to have a deep regard and even love: this is an astonishing and even miraculous thing, yes?
It makes me want to sing to the heavens in praise of our brains. (And sometimes wail in despair at their misbegotten use…)
I could barely contain myself, which made continuing to read a little difficult because my body wanted either to pace madly around the pool or else just dive in for a few furious laps so it could restore some basic calm and equilibrium.
Recently I was reading a magazine article on the novelist Philip Roth and his relationships with various writers of his generation, and I began to get a familiar restless feeling. It was late on a sunny summer Friday and I was poolside, released from the workweek and reclining on a chaise lounge, just as bliss-chilled as can be.
But as I progressed into the article I experienced a not unfamiliar upwelling of emotion, expressed as butterflies in my stomach, a quickening of my pulse, and a sense of being seized by something far more powerful than me that was at least temporarily taking up residence in my body.
A kind of “Occupy Andrew,” minus the tents and heaps of trash.
All of this was partly a result of my familiarity with the writers being discussed — Roth and his contemporaries John Updike, Saul Bellow, William Styron, et al. But the other part was due to the artistry of the writer herself — Claudia Roth Pierpont of the New Yorker — who was presenting this rich material about people I felt I knew personally, the individuals alive on each page, their relationships and jealousies and torments presented without judgment or rancor, just human, oh so human, and so well told.
I could barely contain myself, which made continuing to read a little difficult because my body wanted either to pace madly around the pool or else just dive in for a few furious laps so it could restore some basic calm and equilibrium. What I opted for instead was to gaze skyward and let my thoughts order themselves before dashing off a text message with the story link to a friend, basically along the lines of, “You HAVE to read this, thank you very much, I’ll try to calm down now.”
Sometimes the only effective response to your psychic borders being sloshed over is to share the overflow.
True (non-fiction!) story: Many years ago, I came home on a late afternoon to find my ex-wife weeping copiously on the couch. Huge tears, convulsive sobs. Alarmed and wondering what horrible tragedy had befallen which family member, I asked, “Honey, what’s wrong?”
“Who? Who died?” (Now I was truly alarmed.)
“Augustus! Augustus is dead!! Wahhhhhhhh!!!!!!…..”
Now, you might remember Augustus as the main character in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove, later made into a blockbuster mini-series.
Beholding my wife, I was struck with two thoughts. First, I readily understood her grief, because I had also read the book just a few months before and had come to love Augustus just as deeply as she had.
And now he had died again! Wahhhhhhhh!!!
But my second thought was: How amazing is this?
A solitary human being, curled up with this thick rectangular object on which there are the aforementioned series of ink blobs on paper that is cut and refined from trees. And this human being is somehow able to piece together, via the miracle of an elaborate process called “reading,” an imaginary story that can reach to the deepest core of her emotional life, eliciting waves of affection and grief and making her care intensely about the fate of someone who…doesn’t even exist!
And yet I regularly hear people say, “Oh, I don’t read fiction. Why would I waste my time with stuff that someone’s just making up?”
Some readers fall in love not so much with the characters on the page but with the writers themselves. This is more or less what happened to Elizabeth Hawes, a writer who fell head over heels for one of my own literary heroes, Albert Camus, and wound up parlaying the experience into a well-received but atypical biography, Camus, A Romance.
No, she never actually met Camus, who died tragically in a car crash before star-struck college student Elizabeth could get herself to France and invite him to meet her at a Left Bank café. But the full-on experience of getting all roiled and swooning from reading a book became, fortunately for her, the stuff of her own art.
Hawes writes of reading Camus and hearing “the buzz, that, when it came, was like the roar of a jet engine.” Later on the same page, she says:
“In a moment I still remember, I suddenly identified so strongly with Camus that my heart began to thump and swell with a feeling of connection, compassion, and love for all mankind — a rather Camusian moment, it now seems.”
Sometimes it’s the writer as person, sometimes the world view she posits, sometimes her characters, and sometimes just a sentence or two on a page that compels a reader to go back and savor the selection again. It’s like asking your massage therapist to please attend a little more to that spot she just left, wait, a little higher, okay, now just a smidge more to the right, ahhhhh, there, yes, more please!
Like my experience of these sentences from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses:
What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them. All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.
Or these from John Updike’s In the Beauty of the Lillies:
The cinema wished to leave nothing hidden, to throw nakedness up on the screen, and grief, and fistfights and explosions and violence, and even corpses and monsters, played by Lon Chaney. Terror would attack Teddy even in the middle of hilarious and romantic sequences, as he realized that these bright projections were trying to distract him from the leaden reality beneath his seat, underneath the theatre floor. Death and oblivion were down there, waiting for the movie to be over.
Or these from Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog:
There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature…yes, that’s it: just thinking about trees and their indifferent majesty and our love for them teaches us how ridiculous we are — vile parasites squirming on the surface of the earth — and at the same time how deserving of life we can be, when we can honor this beauty that owes us nothing.
To all of which I can only respond, here in the heat of my ardenthearted blood, in all the reverence and fondness and ridiculousness of this life that owes me nothing but gives me so much and to which I feel compelled to give it everything I have in return:
So many sentences, so little time.
Happy whole body reading to you and yours.