I recall quite vividly the moment I learned to read. I was walking on Nagle Avenue in upper Manhattan with my mother when I saw a sign that read, CAFÉ. But I didn’t know, as a five-year-old, that the é was vocalized, so I read the word as “caf.” At first my mother didn’t understand what I was saying, so I pointed to the sign — and she reflexively corrected me.
The first word I ever read, I pronounced wrong.
My parents stay alive partly so they can read more books. My mother, who is ninety-one, is enraptured by Balzac; my dad, ninety-five, savors Yiddish literature. Though they are limited in their physical movement — they can barely walk across the street — books sweep them up and carry them to nineteenth-century France and czarist Russia.
I overheard two working-class women on the Ulster County Area Transit bus having the following conversation:
“I hate to read,” the first woman said. “I only read books that are educational.”
“Everything you read is educational,” replied the second.
Reading can be addictive. Once you start reading a good book, it’s hard to stop. You stay up too late or miss appointments. You lie unmoving, captivated by an inner fantasy, like a comatose denizen of an opium den.
Americans love “new-car smell,” the indefinable aroma of a brand-new Chevy. What about “new-book smell”? Freshly printed paper has a distinctive scent, too, but no one celebrates it.
Certain books, such as The Communist Manifesto, are often read in secrecy, sometimes with a fake book jacket. I came across a theory somewhere that the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey became a hit because we can now read books on a Kindle, without being observed.
Why are we ashamed of certain books? Because we feel they reveal a hidden side of ourselves, like sadomasochism or communism. We’re embarrassed that we want to be whipped or start a revolution.
What’s your personal utopia? In mine, libraries are open twenty-four hours a day.
When my daughter was fifteen, she was accepted into an honors global-studies class at her high school and had to spend her summer reading Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond. Sylvia soon announced, “This book is unreadable!”
I, too, once found certain books impenetrable. Then, while in graduate school, I had a breakthrough: you could read any book by just moving your eyes along each line of text and saying the words in your mind. If you continue doing this long enough, you will finish the book. You may not understand everything you read, but at the very least you can say: “I have just read Henry V, by William Shakespeare,” without lying. In fact, I’ve read all of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, and Samson Agonistes, by Milton — plus the entire Canterbury Tales in Middle English — this way.
It so happens that most great books fall into this category of “uneasy reading.” My father is reading Don Quixote. Sometimes, when I’m visiting him, he puts down the book, shakes his head, and announces, “Cervantes could have used a good editor!”
Gertrude Stein found late in life that she had read every great book, or nearly every one. She began to fear there was nothing left for her to read. Then a neighbor of hers in the French countryside died, and she bought his library, which contained many mediocre books. Stein discovered that she enjoyed reading bad books as much as she did masterpieces.
I’m a poet, but whenever I hear someone say, “I’m a big reader,” I never picture them reading poetry. Usually they mean novels — especially popular novels. (The type of person who slowly works her way through The Complete Essays of Montaigne will not employ the phrase “big reader.”)
And whenever someone tells me, “I love poetry,” I assume this means the speaker read a poem in middle school and didn’t hate it. I never assume he was up last night till 2 AM reading Keats.
When I was a young poet, I read my work at a benefit for a good cause — I forget which one. Richard Eberhart, a seventy-two-year-old famous poet in a rumpled suit, sat next to me. After he read, he asked how I’d liked his poem.
I told him I thought it was a little didactic, surprised that I could summon up the word didactic.
He gave me a sad look and said, “My problem is that I can get anything published.”
My poetry mentor, Ted Berrigan, once said, “Remember: you’re a poet even when you’re not writing poems.” Similarly you’re a reader even when you’re not reading. Right now, for example, I’m on page 110 of Maigret and the Wine Merchant, by Georges Simenon, and though I’m not carrying the book, Maigret is walking beside me, tamping down the tobacco in his pipe, gazing at a Paris street through the bleary haze of winter.
Today, while reading a review of a new biography of Claude Lévi-Strauss, I was secretly comparing myself to the famous anthropologist. One big difference between us: he had brilliant friends, like André Breton, whom he met on a boat leaving France in 1941. Being around great minds helped his thinking evolve.
All my friends are aging, mediocre poets. No wonder I have no good ideas.
Reading is like dreaming. And buying a book is like buying someone else’s dream.
During the last five or six years I have seen fewer electronic reading devices on the subway. Yesterday a woman in her twenties was reading a paperback older than she was. A corner of the front cover was creased, and the pages were yellow. (What color do the Yellow Pages get after a hundred years? Deeper yellow?)
Reading a book should be a tactile experience. Personally I don’t want to read A Tale of Two Cities on a gadget that resembles an Etch A Sketch.
At Half Moon Books I thumb through The Conquest of Space, by Willy Ley. In it I learn that, to a person on the moon, the earth is sixty times as bright as the full moon is to us.
If we were moon dwellers, we could read by earthlight.
As a child I would sometimes smuggle a book into bed and read it under the covers with a flashlight. Does anyone do this anymore?
Reading is a form of companionship. Children have imaginary friends; grown-ups have books.
A book is like a door. It opens and closes. Its spine resembles a hinge. And it leads into a room — one that only a single reader can enter. Even two people sitting together reading the same page of Moby-Dick are not sharing the same “room.”
Right now I am rereading The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac.
I have a complicated history with Kerouac. At the age of seventeen I worshipped him. By the age of twenty-nine I had rejected him as a hysterical sentimentalist. Since then I’ve been gradually reassessing him.
I am a slow reader. For several days now Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder (called Japhy Ryder in the novel) have been preparing to descend Matterhorn Peak.
A book’s characters always wait for us. No matter what happens to me during the day, Kerouac remains exactly where he was yesterday. He never moves without my permission. I reanimate him at my whim.
It’s quite a different experience to read outdoors with the unlimited sky overhead. Indoors, words sit on a page; outdoors, they rise up, weightless, like helium balloons.
Fiction that takes place indoors is more convincing, perhaps because most novelists know nothing about the outdoors. They sit in their rooms for hours and hours, thinking up adjectives.
Reading is a silent pastime — or, rather, almost silent. There is the sound of the reader turning pages, or scribbling a note in the margin, or saying, “Huh!” to herself. Those tiny sounds distinguish reading from Buddhist meditation.
Books are easy to peruse. If you find a pile of books, you’ll thumb through them. (That’s a lovely verb: to thumb. The only other time it’s used is in “I thumbed a ride.”) But if you find a stack of DVDs, you probably won’t slip each one into a DVD player and watch fifteen seconds of it.
You learn the most interesting things from books. Right now I’m slowly reading A Backward Glance, by Edith Wharton. In a section about her friendship with novelist Henry James, she marvels at how James reads a poem aloud:
I had never before heard poetry read as he read it; and I never have since. He chanted it, and he was not afraid to chant it. . . . The present-day fashion is to chatter high verse as though it were colloquial prose. James, on the contrary, far from shirking the rhythmic emphasis, gave it full expression. His stammer ceased as by magic as soon as he began to read.
Who knew that Henry James stammered?
We speak of our “work life,” our “married life,” or our “sex life” but never of our “book life.” Yet reading is just as essential as marriage or being a dentist. The next time you see a friend, ask, “How’s your book life?”
Books can be valuable for the things you find in them. You may find a fifty-dollar bill in a copy of A Farewell to Arms. I sometimes find old letters in used books. My wife and I once wandered into an antique shop in South Miami, Florida, and found a series of books on botany from the 1920s. Next to a picture of a cornflower was an actual cornflower, pressed between the pages for the past ninety-odd years.
Books sometimes need rescue. The way you might visit the ASPCA and bring home a rescue animal, you can go to a used-book store, find a paperback or a hardcover that’s been abused, and nurse it back to health.
I’ve never found lipstick on a book’s pages. People say they love reading, but I guess no one ever kisses books.
It’s important to alternate reading and nonreading throughout the day, to maintain the architecture of the mind. When you read, you pull another reality around you like a blanket. While you’re not reading, you inhabit actual reality. Too much reading weakens your relationship to the world; too little saps your imagination. You need both to inhabit reality and to flee from it.
A book is always slightly unsatisfying; that’s why one keeps reading. If a poet wrote the perfect poem, she would never need to write again. In fact, no one would. All poets could quit and make an honest living working at Wendy’s or paving roads. But no page of writing is ever quite good enough. Readers move on, looking for a slightly better book. Perpetual dissatisfaction — sometimes faint, sometimes overpowering — is what keeps us reading.