Monday, March 7, 2011

My Reading Life: The Reading Memoir

[Note: This is adapted from something I wrote for for another venue.]

There was a time when I was hooked on memoirs about reading.  Maybe it was just that there were a lot of Reading Memoirs being published.  The title of this post comes from Pat Conroy’s book My Reading Life.  I’m not a big Pat Conroy fan but I could relate to this:

I take it as an article of faith that the novels I've loved will live inside me forever. Let me call on the spirit of Anna Karenina as she steps out onto the train tracks of Moscow in the last minute of her glorious and implacable life. Let me beckon Madame Bovary to issue me a cursory note of warning whenever I get suicidal or despairing as I live out a life too sad by half. If I close my eyes I can conjure up a whole country of the dead who will live for all time because writers turned them into living flesh and blood. There is Jay Gatsby floating face downward in his swimming pool or Tom Robinson's bullet riddled body cut down in his Alabama prison yard in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yes, all of those same characters are very vivid in my mind.  Except maybe Jay Gatsby.  He is always a blur to me. Tom seems more vivid.

Or how about Anna Quindlen’s memoir How Reading Changed my Life in which she writes: "There was waking and there was sleeping. And then there were books".   In my case there were books when I was supposed to be sleeping.

My own personal favorite book of this genre is Lynne Sharon Schwartz’ Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books in which she asks, “Without books how could I have become myself?"  

There were some books I wanted to possess even more intimately than by reading. I would clutch them to my heart and long to break through the chest wall, making them part of me, or else press my body into them, to burrow between the pages.  When I was eight I felt this passion – androgynous, seeking both to penetrate and encompass – for Little Women which I had read several times. Frustrated, I began copying it into a notebook.  With the first few pages I felt delirious, but the project quickly palled.  It was just words, the same words I had read over and over; writing them down did not bring them into closer possession. Only later did I understand that I wanted to have written Little Women, conceived and gestated it and felt its words delivered from my pen.

Then in the 1990’s I got hooked on the book club memoir. One of my favorites was The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo by Paula Huntley.  In 1991 Paula Huntley’s husband answered the call of the American Bar Association to help Kosovo build a modern legal system and Paula went with him.  I remember reading about the project in the ABA Journal and wondering what type of person would volunteer.  It sounded like a project that needed people braver than me. 

Ed has taken unpaid leave from the law school to work pro bono in the Balkans and I've resigned from my marketing job of twelve years. We will have no income for a year, but we've decided to make the commitment. The only worry that really remains tonight is whether I can do anything useful for the Kosovars. I don't want to be a voyeur in a country that has suffered so much. Ed will be helping to create a modern legal system with the American Bar Association's Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (ABA-CEELI). But I have no legal training, no medical or counseling skills. And there is certainly no need in Kosovo at this stage for my marketing experience.

Paula became an ESL teacher and taught, among other things, Ernest Hemingway to her Kosovo adult students.  But they taught her much in return.  After reading this book I went out and bought multiple copies and gave them out to people I knew.  I kept a copy in my guest bedroom on the nightstand for a long time, although I see now that it is gone.  Good!  I hope a guest passed it on after reading it.

Another great memoir about a group reading experience (among other things) is Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi.  She writes:

For nearly two years, almost every Thursday morning, rain or shine, they came to my house, and almost every time, I could not get over the shock of seeing them shed their mandatory veils and robes and burst into color. When my students came into that room, they took off more than their scarves and robes. Gradually, each one gained an outline and a shape, becoming her own inimitable self. Our world in that living room with its window framing my beloved Elburz Mountains became our sanctuary, our self-contained universe, mocking the reality of black-scarved, timid faces in the city that sprawled below.

The theme of the class was the relation between fiction and reality. We read Persian classical literature, such as the tales of our own lady of fiction, Scheherazade, from A Thousand and One Nights, along with Western classics-Pride and Prejudice, Madame Bovary, Daisy Miller, The Dean's December and, yes, Lolita. As I write the title of each book, memories whirl in with the wind to disturb the quiet of this fall day in another room in another country.

Most of us don’t have such exotic stories to tell about the venues in which we read books that we loved.  My own reading takes place in snatches these days and there is no sense of danger in my reading group meetings.  It has been a while since I’ve picked up a Memoir about Reading.   Are there any good ones I’ve missed?