Sunday, March 16, 2008


I've read a number of books about writers writing about books and Rereadings: Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love is the most recent among them (the last couple include Anne Quindlen's Imagined London and Sara Nelson's So Many Books So Little Time).

Arthur Krystal's essay about H.C. Witwer's The Leather Pusher included an entire section about how readers grow over time, which struck a chord with me and he begins with Hugh Walpole, another writer writing about books in another collection of essays, who classified readers into two categories, "the ecstatic and the critical, allowing of course for the inevitable overlap."

Whether one becomes one kind of reader or the other, according to Walpole, depends on "some dominating influence" that appears in the life of every future reader, usually at the age of fourteen or fifteen, "that solves, partly, the question as to whether he will be in later life, an aesthetic or unaestehtic reader."...To be young was bookish heaven. At fourteen I read every word of every page; I didn't know you could skip words. Why should I when all authors were infallible; all narrators, reliable; every detail essential?...And reading was fun - not serious fun, mind you, but sequestered, magical, self-absorbed fun. Nothing mattered but the story: who won, who survived, who ended up happy, who came up short...Once the young reader gets past the stage where the brain sucks in books as if they were bubbles of oxygen, he or she begins to sense that Melville is doing something different from Steinbeck, and that Dickens and Balzac resemble each other in certain respects, but not in all. As children, we crossed wide-eyed and trusting into the writer's world, as adults we invite the writer into ours and hold him accountable for how he behaves there.

My earliest memory of reading is in the first or second grade when I used to read fairy tales. My favourite was Snow White and Rose Red and I can still remember the beautiful illustrations in the book. I grew into series reading in grade school and devoured Nancy Drew and The Babysitter's Club and teen romance series like Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High - I'd hole up in my bedroom for hours reading, yes, every word, even if I didn't like where the story was going, to escape into a world that was not my own. While I still enjoy books, as an adult, I'm far less patient with authors and don't feel nearly as guilty about not finishing a book once started if I find I don't like it.

The interesting thing about reading books in this writers-writing-about-other-writers genre is that they expose me to authors I've perhaps not heard of before and inspire me to pursue them further. Katherine Mansfield is a perfect example: I read some of her short stories in my high school extra credit Women in Lit English class* but didn't know much of her background and after reading about her life and stories through the eyes of Patricia Hampl in the second essay, I'm intrigued and have added her to my reading list.

* Yes, I was a nerd in high school. What of it, huh!?!?

1 comment:

Julie said...

I stumbled across your blog and was very interested to read this post. "To be young was bookish heaven" -- yes! I wrote about the same thing just the other day.

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