On Reading

Thumbnail image for google.gifIt’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday today, which for those of you without children in elementary school, may help to explain why the “google” logo today looks a little different (thanks Karen). It’s also Read Across America today – a lovely memorial to the man who gave us that cat, the lorax, Bartholomew’s hats, Horton, and a host of others.

I love books. I can’t remember a time, in fact, when I didn’t love books, starting way back when I memorized the words to Look Out for Pirates, which my mother read to me every night before bed when I was three or four.

Thumbnail image for pirates.jpgShe claims that I was reading on my own by kindergarten, and reading chapter books before first grade. Truth? Slight exaggeration? Not sure – but certainly I was deep into biographies of Cleopatra and Elizabeth I by fourth grade, and reading the Claudine books, by Colette, in fifth grade. Needless to say, I had very few friends. Which was (mostly) fine, because I had books.

Liam, unlike his geeky mother, has friends (and hand-eye coordination) but he’s also discovered the rapture that comes from being lost in a book – and the sense of loss that happens when you emerge, blinking, into the real world after the story is over. Caleb can’t read yet, but he loves being read to – we’ve started chapter books together, and have finished Willy Wonka, James and the Giant Peach, and now are laughing at the antics of Mr. Popper’s penguins. 

Books fill our apartment: they are stacked under the coffee table, next to the bed, under our desks. I try not to buy books anymore, actually, and rely instead on the “reserve” list of the public library. That means I get to the bestsellers about a year after the rest of the country, which puts a little damper on my ability to make chat at cocktail parties, but that’s okay – I’m not invited to that many cocktail parties anyway.

My husband loves his Kindle, downloads articles to his computer, reads essays on his iphone; he constantly extols the portable virtues of these gadgets but I am unmoved. I live firmly on the paper side of the digital divide, despite having recently acquired an iPhone.  Yes, I do email and facebook and, you know, blog, but ultimately? I like paper. After all, when I was little, I used to check books out from the library based on their smell, the feel of the paper under my fingers, whether the book fell open easily to my chubby little-girl hands. Even now, the physical object of the book – its heft, scent, shape, texture – can determine whether or not I pick up a book and read it. Some books are simply more welcoming than others.

Right now, I’m making my way through Anna Karenina with, yes, the inevitable parallel running through my head, about Napoleon being defeated by the immensity of the Russian steppes in winter. I’m hoping the dense spread of Tolstoy’s pages won’t defeat me, but it’s slow going, even though the book itself is wonderful, thick with the minutiae of a world, and filled with precise observations: “like all guilty husbands, Stepan was very solicitous of his wife’s comfort…” I’ve got about a hundred pages left and I’ve taken some satisfaction in watching my bookmark march through the pages – a satisfaction I wouldn’t get if I were reading this on a Kindle. Husband points out that if I were reading on a Kindle, I could take the book with me because it wouldn’t be so heavy – but I don’t want to read Anna Karenina on the subway (despite the whole train thing). She doesn’t belong there. Trains are for magazines, detective novels, student papers – things to which you don’t have to give your full attention.

I think something gets lost when you read on a Kindle; it seems somehow impersonal. Husband says I’m a Luddite and should really shake off the dust of nostalgia, but what can I say. Imagine “lending” a book to someone on a Kindle: do I just send you the file? You don’t see the dog-eared pages, or the water spots from when I was reading at the beach; if it’s an old book, you don’t see my loopy youthful scrawl on the frontispiece, spelling out my name. When I say things like this to Husband, he’s all “why would anyone want to borrow a book with crap all over it anyway?”

But then I see Liam, wrapped in a blanket on the couch, face burrowed into a book: he reads with his whole body, it seems, as if he’d like to funnel himself into the pages. When I read things digitally, I’m very aware of the medium – of the keyboard, the scroll function, the click of the keys. The whisper of turning book pages, though, echo the narrative unspooling in my head; the “interface” is seamless, my connection to what I’m reading absolute.

An article in the Times magazine a while back talked about literacy websites for pre-schoolers, commenting on the fact that the websites tried to replicate the physical attributes of books themselves, but without fooling the author’s three-year-old into thinking he’d read a book.  Her son liked the websites, but thought of them as movies, not books. Books, for him, are  “intimate” and “snuggly,” because he’s at the stage where someone has to read to him. But even reading alone, as an adult, can be intimate – passionate and all-consuming, like any good love affair. It’s hard to imagine being passionate about a Kindle, frankly – and while we could go from that thought to a comparison between real lovers and electronic playthings, we’re not going to go there today.

Instead, we’re going to think about a book of photographs by Andre Kertesz, called On Reading (with many thanks to Patsy & co. for giving me this beautiful book for my birthday). The entire book is just…pictures of people reading. And while in most of these pictures people are reading alone, they don’t look lonely. They look content, at peace – as if, having lost themselves in the pages of a book, they have found themselves.
womanreading.jpg 

 

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