Once, I made a pirate ship by extending a deck of wooden blocks from the cubby under a desk. Pirates needed a treasure map, I knew, so I drew one on a piece of scrap paper. I folded it up, but something else nagged at me. I thought about the alphabet. If I knew the sounds that lived in the word “map”, couldn’t I fit the sounds to the right letters, and label the map? Mmm. “M.” Aaahhhh. “A.” Puh. “P.” Forgetting the ship, I ran the map to my mother to check if I was right. It may or may not be true, but it seems to me that after my on-deck epiphany, I learned to read through a sort of hungry mental osmosis.
There are children who won’t go to bed without a certain blanket or doll. When my parents tucked me in, I pulled the covers up to my chin, to hide the jagged stack of books smuggled in beside me: William Steig, Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarry, Margaret Wise Brown. The books’ square cardboard edges were as cozy to me as a favorite stuffed animal, and I didn’t want to part with them overnight.
I was a fortunate child and there were frequent trips to the public library. The rush of air which greeted us at the old glass doors smelled like pages and quiet and I couldn’t breathe it deep enough. (The only thing wrong with the juvenile section was a life-sized plush E.T., which scared me – and what does E.T. have to do with literature, anyway?) Each week, I could barely carry the stack to the counter: Ann M. Martin, Brian Jacques, Lois Lowry, Judy Blume, Sharon Creech. On nervous visits to the adult stacks, I digested the difference between kids’ books and adult books: grown-up books had the author’s name written as large as the book’s title. How did grown-ups choose their books? Was it the story, or was it a matter of who wrote the story?
My favorite books were not borrowed but lived at home. I think my mother read her Little House books once before they returned to the shelf to await her own daughter. But when my turn came, I began a sort of lifelong relationship with the books and their author. Don’t ask me how many times I’ve read the entire series – I’ve lost count. As a child, I only knew that the books entranced me. But as a teenager and a young woman I was drawn back into the books again and again. I read them this year as a companion to a biography on Wilder, and to think about the interplay of autobiography and fiction. Adult readings of the novels also let you follow the thread of history outside the Ingalls’ family life. At first, I missed the references to Laura’s uncle’s service in the Civil War, and the stark racism against Native Americans embodied in the Ingalls’ gentle matriarch. At one point, Laura’s future husband Almanzo declares how good it is to be “free, white, and twenty-one.” Ma, frustrated over the town drunks, declares that women just might have to bestir themselves, even if they should not vote. Laura witnesses the marvels of the telegraph and the railroad, and the epic incursions and adventures of homesteaders in the westward expansion. I’ve also read Wilder to appreciate the nuances of the novels’ evolving and maturing point of view, as the protagonist grows up. The Little House volumes also pack some of the most potent thrills ever put on paper – Ma’s encounter with a bear, Pa’s getting lost in the Minnesota blizzard, Ma, Laura and Mary saving their house from a prairie fire, and the whole family’s near-fatal bout of the then-mysterious fever of malaria. As Laura and Mary (left alone when their parents go to town) single-handedly face down a whole herd of horned cattle trying to eat Pa’s haystack, you can’t help but think of modern American kids, shepherded onto the school bus lest they come to any harm outside the house. I also return to Wilder for the same reason I revisit Beverly Cleary’s iconic children’s series: both authors perfectly capture timeless, lovable characters and the lucid, universal moments of family life with spare and simple language.
My loved ones have been exasperated for years over my penchant for re-reading. But I don’t re-read books on a whim, as if I’ve forgotten the message or story. If I’m engrossed in a book the first time around, I approach the return as a sort of class in an admired writer’s style, syntax, characterization, research and themes. Last week I re-read Arthur Golden’s luminous “Memoirs of a Geisha” for the third (fourth??) time, because I wanted to savor his luxurious use of simile. A year does not go by without my re-reading some Larry McMurtry, marveling at his masterful dialogue, and the way his descriptive prose is nearly devoid of overblown verbs. It’s as if he’s simply gotten out of the way of the characters: men and women I’ve loved for years, despite the fact that they roam the Texas plains without a single clear-cut relationship or stirring moral victory. I just finished Robert Goolrick’s “A Reliable Wife”, but probably won’t revisit it – for all the major news outlets trumpeting praise on his book’s cover, each of his characters seems to unspool his or her story in the same voice.
My favorite literary protagonist? Yep, sorry, it’s Jane Eyre (may Brocklehurst burn forever in a pit full of fire). I never love her more than when she faces down the cold, pompous piety of St. John Rivers, who would dictate her life’s course. No matter what or who she faces, Jane always speaks her clever, forthright mind and sticks to her principles. My least favorite protagonist is Bridget Jones. Author Helen Fielding kept me afloat through Bridget’s relentless idiocy by her cheeky borrowing of Pride and Prejudice plot points in the original novel. But I ultimately flung the sequel away from me (literally) because no matter how funny or vulnerable or real Bridget is, I cannot forgive such exhaustive stupidity. Waiting for Fielding’s Bridget to do a single mature and productive thing in any situation is like waiting for something interesting to happen in a Beckett play.
I think the one protagonist that has affected me the most, and perhaps for the worst, is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Sara Crewe. I re-read this book for years as a child and teenager, and in retrospect I think the thing that captured me was not A Little Princess’s riches to rags to riches story, but the determined potency of Sara’s imaginative inner world. I think Sara, who despite all her hardships continues to direct her thoughts and feelings to transport her, connected with an unconscious desire on my part to keep control of my emotions at all costs. One of Sara Crewe’s phrases has stuck with me through the years: “There’s nothing stronger than anger. Except what makes you hold it in. That’s stronger.” I internalized the idea that shielding others from your true, painful feelings was a virtue which showed your integrity and self-control.
“You had better not get any more books,” my husband says. “There’s nowhere to put them.” If our small apartment had continents, overflowing bookshelves would make up a big one. But I still find myself kneeling for an hour on the musty carpet of the New Life Thrift Store’s bookroom, agonizing over whether I need the Stephen King, Sue Monk Kidd, Jared Diamond, Flannery O’Connor AND the David Wroblewski. I tear myself away from The Story of Edgar Sawtelle only because someone else deserves the chance to discover it there on the shelf and be as transported as I was. When I get the rest of them home, I lift them out of the wrinkled bag one by one and run my hands over the bindings, feeling a familiar jolt of sheer unaccountable pleasure. I once heard that reading is like a kind of psychic connection – a writer (whom you will likely never meet) can implant his or her thoughts or imagination right into your mind.
Right now, I’m reading The Mermaid Chair and Gender Outlaw: Men, Women and the Rest of Us. I’ve always hoped that if my home city is paralyzed by some natural disaster, it will hit while I’m in the bookstore. I will build an igloo out of books and read for days, completely unmolested while the others fight over the dwindling cafe bagels. I agree with you – I might just have a problem. Does the giddy joy which steals over me at the Library Festival mean I’m addicted to books? I’m sure there’s a book on the subject. The first step to recovery is probably to read up.