Thursday, April 22, 2010

Reading for My Life

The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency—the belief that the here and now is all there is.—Allan Bloom

I was born with a silver book in my mouth. My parents say that by the time I was four, I was reading fluently, by six, devouring Nancy Drew books at the rate of two and three a week, and by ten, had moved on to the Adult section at the library, checking out armloads of gothic romance mysteries. I’d disappear into my bedroom, sit on the floor, knees up, back against the bed, and speed through the pages. (I even tried writing one of my own torrid romances on an old Smith Corona typewriter in the basement. Something about an antebellum widow with a heaving bosom who meets a lonely, laconic Northerner with fiery loins. All of the innuendo and clumsily written acts of sexual congress were entirely and floridly derivative, patched together from scenes I had read.)

I always had a book with me—at the doctor’s office, in the car, on the bus, in the tub, on the toilet, at the dinner table (where I could only admire it beside my plate). I could be someone other than me. Me was awkward, gangly, self-conscious, self-loathing, too much. So I disappeared into books. Hours evaporated. Especially those often solitary hours at school: I remember sitting in Sr. Mary Alice’s third grade class, ignoring the math equations on the board, ignoring the boys behind me and their nonstop jibes—Bones Neville, Bones Neville, Bones Neville-- and instead, reading Judy Bloom’s Blubber which I’d secreted in my lap. It was the story of a girl similarly body-conscious, similarly mocked and bullied, similarly lonely. All of a sudden, Sr. Mary Alice’s wooden pointer rested on my shoulder. “Miss Neville,” she said, “Hand it over.” With great reluctance, I gave her the book, which only found its way back to me at the end of the school year. Or a year later, when all the other girls in class received party invitations except me because, as the birthday girl said, “You’re too crazy. Nobody wants you.” I wouldn’t let myself feel that, that could drown me. What could I feel? There was my dog eared copy of The Outsiders in my desk, and doesn’t Johnny tell Ponyboy to “stay gold?” Well then, that’s what I’d do: I’d show them and stay gold.

In high school, I worked at B. Dalton Bookstore, oddly located in what was referred to as the Miracle Mile—a half-mile outdoor mall containing luxury shops. Most people were shopping at Tiffany’s and Versace, looking for diamond bracelets and leather miniskirts which meant the book store was generally empty. Fine by me. I sat behind the cash register haphazardly reading my way through the fiction shelf (Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera led to Steinbeck’s Winter of Our Discontent led to Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom!) or canvassing, daily, the self-help aisle trying to find the book that would explain why I hated myself so much, why I was so blackly and always depressed, why I hacked up my arms (Tough luck in 1989—no such book existed). I did, however, find Suicide: The Forever Decision that I shoplifted because I was too embarrassed to buy it, a decision that literally did save my life. On dark, hopeless nights, I’d pick up that book and read it over and over—my proxy therapist when I didn’t have one.

Reading during the bleak times is what so often saves me. Stories reveal the honest nobility in living out a life filled with complications. Words, phrases, bits of dialogue fill me up with their transformative power, keep IT at bay if only for a little while. When my insomnia kicked in during high school and I was awake until two and three in the morning, fighting urges to self-destruct, keeping myself glued to the bed because I knew if I got up, I’d find my way to the bathroom and the razor blades, I’d read and read and read my way from page one to page three hundred and one. Some of the time anyway.

In college, what kept me alive were two things:

1. All of the English courses I piled on semester after semester, which in turn meant many, many books that I read with great passion and feeling, but also with a mind engaged in reflecting on the architectural craft of the story--the nuts and bolts, the foundation and the roof, the windows and the door, how all of it comes together to create Art. And Art was necessary with its epiphanic arias dedicated to beauty and ugliness, love and pain. That Art was bigger than IT, bigger than me; it allowed me to look beyond the self, to live a little longer. As Allan Bloom suggests, we read because we can then believe that there is more than the here and now, more than IT and Me.

2. Frederick Busch, a novelist, short story writer, and my teacher. During my freshman year fiction writing workshop, he saw something in one of my wretched stories (about a boy watching his uncle go through post-traumatic stress over his fighting in the Vietnam War—I knew little about the war, even less about PTSD so the story was a pretentious flop on both fronts). And yet, Fred pointed out that not only was it well-written, but I had taken an imaginative leap—had stepped outside of my own narrow experience in order to enter the life of an “other” another. Over the course of four years, he helped me to believe that I was (not could be, but already was) a writer; “I’m sorry to say,” he said, “but you’re the real thing.” (He was practical, too—cautioning against the life of a writer, with its endless parade of rejections and financial struggle.) And yet, those words were a beacon that kept me (keep me!) swimming to shore. I write (and by default, read) because I must. I write to keep ITs unhinged rant in the background. I write because, as Dr. B. tells me, my voice matters.

Here is the devastating fact of the moment: I can’t read. Novels sit unopened on my nightstand. The manic wicky-wackies make short change of concentration, my eyes jitter and skip all over the page. I can’t summon up the scrupulous energy needed to read carefully, for both pleasure and edification. Therein lies the problem—there is so little pleasure left after IT moves in that stories lie inert on the page, characters seem only a conglomeration of facts and tics, the unfolding of language seems, to the manic mind, to be brutally precious and ungodly slowwwwww. And then there is the background chitter-chatter, IT interrupting at every sentence, IT putting forth ITs concerns (eating/not eating, racing thoughts, urges to self-harm) which push aside the book. Who can read with all that noise and bother?

So the books sit on my nightstand in silent, indignant protest, consigned to wait until a pleasurable concentration returns. What I have in their stead, while I wait out this manic backsliding, is the belief that I will read and write my own stories again. That what I am doing here is writing my story which is, in itself, a heartfelt prayer that there is more than the here and now, more than this manic moment. That my story is expansive and will extend into a grace-filled future.

“Stories are the heartfelt prayer, the valiant promise, that what we have loved might live forever.”--Frederick Busch