As a small child, I read for two reasons: a) for pure, blissful escape; and b) because I received positive reinforcement for it. I knew reading was something smart people did; I wanted to show how smart I was, so I read. Some books I read because they were long. I wanted my vacation from reality to be as long as possible; this is probably why I developed a dislike for short stories early on.
Other books I’d pick off the shelf purely because they looked ‘hard.’ Often the reading of a hard book was its own reward; the text might be a challenge, but the exposure to new ideas, tropes, and styles was commensurate.
When I was a junior in high school, the fact that I was carrying a Herman Hesse paperback on top of my stack of textbooks convinced the Honors History teacher to let me into his already overfull class. It was pure happenstance that I was reading Steppenwolf at the time, but I learned a valuable social lesson that day—that of the book as accessory.
I began noticing what other people were carrying around and formed conclusions about them accordingly. Judging people by their book covers seemed a handy window into the souls of others, but it had a dark side; fearing presumptions that might be made about me, I started censoring what I read (at least in public) as well. I was a teenager; I felt compelled to be conscious of what I was communicating to others.
I was already familiar with this shorthand in other forms—T-shirts, locker decorations, bumper stickers—attractors as blatant as those displayed in nature by frigate birds and bullfrogs. “This is how I define ‘cool,’” these things say to those who encounter them.
My boyfriend my senior year caught my attention in precisely this fashion. One day in September, I, with my peroxided, spiky hair and torn jeans, slunk by a cadre of tall, tan, chlorine-blond members of the water polo team, mentally sneering at them before they could snub me first.
“Heyyyyy!” one called out to me. I braced myself for the inevitable teasing by jocks that my hairstyle invited in our cow town. Instead, he held out the bottom of his shirt, distorting the already stylized features of Sting, Andy, and Stewart. I knew that image; I was wearing its twin. “I was at that concert, too,” the impossibly handsome boy crowed. He crossed a strict social border purely because of what I was wearing; we became close friends and dated for over a year as a result.
In college, books were more valuable shibboleths than T-shirts, affording a subtlety that those in high school had lacked. One really smart guy inspected my shelves when I had him over for dinner at my apartment. He pulled my copy of Swann’s Way down, noting the creases in the paperback spine. “Wow,” he said. “I can tell you’ve actually read this.” He put it back and took Ulysses off the shelf, flipping to the pages I had dog-eared, nodding and smiling. Apparently I met with his approval; he proposed not many days afterward. (I turned him down; I didn’t think I could take the pressure of constantly maintaining those lofty standards.)
I helped Patrick paint his bedroom not long after I met him. I wasn’t surprised to see all the black-clad Penguin paperbacks that form the core curriculum at his alma mater, but I was glad to see the same edition of The Lord of the Rings I own. I won’t lie and say that didn’t affect my judgment of him for the better. Knowing that he was familiar with Tolkien was icing on his delicious cake.
Living in Manhattan brought exhilarating freedom from worries about what other people thought about my taste in reading. On any given day on the subway, the overwhelming range of reading materials being avidly perused brought me a comforting sense of anonymity. Happily married, loving the adventure of self-discovery against the backdrop of the fabulous City, I allowed myself to read for pure joy again.
Adriana admitted in a recent comment that she’d been ‘cheating’ on Proust. If that’s the case, I’ve got a serious issue with serial infidelity; I’ve read at least twenty books since we started reading In Remembrance of Things Past together. When it comes to books, I’m like one of those perennial bachelors played in movies by people like Vince Vaughn. Commit? To just one? But what about all the others? There’s no way.
My taste in books has always been eclectic. Diana Gabaldon one day, Graham Greene the next, Orson Scott Card the day after that. For me, reading is like eating (in many ways). Mexican food is great, but would you eat it to the exclusion of French or Ethiopian? I guess some people do just that. But I never could.
I re-read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince yesterday to prepare for tonight’s unveiling of Book Seven. The great pleasure I derived from doing so is vitally different from, but no less than, the ongoing enjoyment of reading Proust. Marcel’s exquisite attention to the finest detail, his incisive social criticism, his fervor for art, all set in sentences of intricate hypotaxis like burnished jewels—they make a savory feast indeed.
But Marcel will wait patiently in the wooden box at my bedside tomorrow as I blaze my way through J.K. Rowling’s latest and greatest ice cream extravaganza; I’ve promised Christian that he can have The Deathly Hallows first thing Sunday after church.