The Art of Reading
Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die. That’s folk wisdom at its best. The equivalent for us in the book world would run something like this: Everybody wants to write, but nobody wants to read. Well, just about all of us know that things don’t work that way.
Here comes a cliché, and I’m unrepentant about using it: the writer’s work begins with his and her life as a reader. One of the questions writers most often hear concerns the first book they read, or rather, the book that influenced their lives. That question is romantic by its nature: it pictures the child, the boy or girl, coming upon a book and receiving a revelation from it. This book changed my life…
In my case, it was more like a counter-revelation. My father, who thought of himself as a culturally superior being, wanted me to read when I was a boy, whereas I wanted to be a grease monkey – that’s what we called auto mechanics at the time. So of course I refused to read. No, it went like this: I did read, but I hid that fact, so as not to give him the satisfaction. Nice, huh? I read books from the local public library sitting on the uncomfortable straight wooden chairs they had there, rather than risk having my parents catch me with a book.
This is apparently a fairly common occurrence.
At the time, fifth grade or so, I came upon a book that truly startled me: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved it because it was about children escaping on their own, into other dimensions. What kid wouldn’t want that? I decided to give a book report on it, and the teacher liked my efforts. But he had the terrible idea of recording my spoken report and playing it back. I was horrified by the sound of my voice from out of the tape recorder, and made it my business to keep my mouth shut from then on.
Now I know why our voices sound so strange when we heard them recorded. We hear ourselves from within our heads, from mouth to ear through the body, whereas we are hearing ourselves from outside when it’s recorded. In some way it’s not us, not the voice we know, and this is disturbing. As for A Wrinkle in Time, it is a science-fiction book, the first and last of that type I ever read. But I stand by my choice, even today.
Reading can involve an act of hubris. We might read a book and think, “Hey, I can do that.” Or even, “Hey, I can do better than that.” That’s why reading books that aren’t very good can lead to the very worthwhile conclusion that we can do as well or better than the guy who made this book that we’re holding in our hands. Often, we’re wrong. But that’s not the point. To some degree, every book we read is a challenge. Do this. Write me. Do better than me. To some degree, every book says that to its reader.
Recently I came across the photo collection called The Book of Readers (Éditions du Passage) featuring the work of George S. Zimbel. You may not know his name but you do know the photo of Marilyn Monroe on the subway grate, skirt a-flying. That icon is the work of Zimbel. His book contains a large number of very moving photos of the relation between people and their books.
As the featured photo taken by the artist Marie-Louise Gay shows, reading is a precious escape. Even when you’re sitting in a paradise landscape, nothing beats the story you’re following. The heck with all those palm trees and that Pacific Ocean!