A large box sat in the back of my fourth grade classroom, marked by square letters S R A and other words I never read. For most of my classmates it was a dusty and defunct dinosaur, not nearly as interesting as bookshelves of heavily illustrated paperbacks or even back copies of Highlights or Weekly Reader.
They were more to me. Inside, neatly tabbed folders held reading from warm to cool, beige to yellow to orange to red and onto brown and black, each color another rainbow rung of mastery I desired.
The year ended before I reached black, and those last weeks are my first vivid frustration. My teacher wouldn’t let me skip forward, and whatever awaited in those black folders held questions and answers I’d never know.
One of my MFA classmates once calculated how many books she could hope to read. Even at a torrid pace, the number never equaled her aspirations. If, as some people speculate, Thomas Jefferson was the last person who read everything written, then we are the first generation to have read in one lifetime less than what’s published in a month.
I sometimes imagine myself as a reading eye, vacuuming up what’s before it and absorbing words wherever they lie. More habit than will, my absorption is unplanned. The swath of clean carpet is tangled and twisted, doubling back on itself and leaving so much untouched.
The seminal photographer Andre Kertesz took a number of photographs of people reading. He captures them from afar, across rooftops and canyon streets. He froze them in funny situations where everything seems focused on the page or found them reading even in the midst of chaos. But in every picture, he conveys their strange composure. We see them as if we’ve caught them sleeping, as if, while reading, their lives have at last stilled and they are fully themselves, unaware, unposed, and unguarded.
You can find a million quotations lauding reading, but what if we only need it, what if it is a compulsion and not an ambition?
For a few years in my teens, I read The Lord of the Rings every spring. Just when the weather began to turn, I’d start again, sharing time with the fellowship as they traveled to familiar spots and encountered familiar obstacles. I knew they would get by. I also knew that some part of every day I’d spend outside myself, engrossed in a place I’d never visit and imagining heroism I could in no way equal.
Early in Next Stop Wonderland, Erin Castleton (Hope Davis) drops a book at the counter of a used book shop, and the clerk instructs her not to close it. “You should never close a book,” he says, “until you’ve read something from it… just a sentence, or a word, it can be very, very revealing.” What she reads comes from Wordsworth:
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude
The random reading of words and sentences becomes, from that point forward, a motif in the film, a way of dividing its action into stages or chapters. I’ve never believed in reading that way, as a sort of I Ching of throwing bones, but books may be the closest we come to artificial intelligence. The best books have an answer to every question, however oblique or mysterious that answer might be. They offer answers outside us by insinuating themselves until they are inside us, a special solitude that is not loneliness.
In “The American Scholar” (1837), Ralph Waldo Emerson labels reading as one of the three proper influences on “Man Thinking,” but, as in all other matters, he’s picky. “Undoubtedly there is a right way of reading” he says, “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments.” Emerson prefers to “Read God directly,” but when we cannot, “when the sun is hid, and the stars withdraw their shining…we hear that we may speak,” and, citing an Arab proverb, he says “A fig tree, looking on a fig tree, becometh fruitful.”
The chief pleasure in the scholar’s reading is discovering something understood in something strange. The best book, “says that which lies close to my own soul, that which I also had well nigh thought and said.”
The first time I read “The American Scholar,” I felt the odd echo of Emerson’s words—he was saying something I knew true.
Francis Bacon said, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few are to be chewed and digested.”
Not all reading is the same.
Most English teachers come in two varieties, those who love writing and those who love reading. Both understand that one could not exist without the other, but both want to pass their primary pleasure along.
For an English teacher, I don’t read as much as I’d like. Though I must average about 50 pages a night, most of it is re-reading—preparing to teach already familiar books, hoping to see something new to exploit in the next day’s discussion or just looking for the fresh familiarity that will make class compelling.
Buried deep under my to-do list, pleasure reading is my last destination. I try to read one book a month, but I don’t devour books as most English teachers do. I take a tiny bite just before bed, a few sentences scrambled by the onset of unconsciousness.
People sometimes ask me what my first book was. I say Winnie the Pooh, though, truth is, I don’t remember.
The first book that made an impression on me was Curious George. I imagined George as real and felt his dilemmas so acutely that I’d sometimes have to close the cover and take a breath before moving on. Now, I know the man in the cowboy hat will soon arrive to solve everything, but then I believed anything could happen. Just as in life, what was next was unwritten.
I miss that.
When my father died, my sister found some sparsely filled journals describing cities he’d visited and memories he must have wanted to preserve. When I die, my children will have much more of me to read. They will be able to revive my voice whenever they wish, but will they wish?
The words writers leave have their own causes. Once expressed, few writers look back. The stories await construction from another mind.
One of my students is doubling up on English classes and will be reading The Great Gatsby twice, having read it once before. I joked she will know the book better than I do, but I’ve read it enough times to lose track.
People say a book is different each time you encounter it. You’re older and what you see in it fits your age. Suddenly Holden reminds you of your son, or you develop tolerance for Mr. Wilcox when he’d seemed such a blowhard before. Prospero becomes someone like you and Miranda pitiable. The stories mellow like anything aged.
Yet the words never move. They are dry-docked, and if they seem to have shifted from the last time you looked, it’s a current in you that makes it seem so.
Having read Gatsby so many times, I’m more fascinated by how I misquote it than how much I remember. I’m always revealing what I thought I knew, but didn’t.
For some time now, I’ve wondered if reading is doomed.
When I say so to my students, repeating the statistic that, by twenty-one, the average American has spent three times as many hours playing virtual games as reading, they grumble and grouse. How could reading die, they say, when so much of what we learn and know must come from written sources?
But they misunderstand me. I’m not talking about information but emotion. A few of them still look for humanity in books and seek vicarious experience, but more see reading like a computer application, a necessary interface, a means to pleasure, not a pleasure itself.
The best books continue without me. I put them down and imagine the characters repairing to dressing rooms for tea or taking a walk together to pass time until my return. Some characters become companions, running a parallel course like the moon on a night highway. Though they don’t truly move, they are always chasing you, and their existence relies on your noticing.
Some books, even years later, seem to riot within their covers. I only need to pick them up to imagine everyone still inside and hear their familiar voices whispering in my ear.
Two weekends ago, I reread Pride and Prejudice. I’m reading it for an independent study with an ambitious student, but I went well beyond the 100 pages I needed to complete. The narrative pulled me toward every event that appeared on the horizon, and soon the hours stretched.
More happened than real life could present. Putting the book aside felt like disembarking from a speedboat, the ground was too solid, my circumstances suddenly stagnant.
They are all along, but reading makes you notice.