Essays

Evolution of a Reader

By posted at 6:27 am on July 19, 2010 16

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I envy the way my oldest son reads, stretched out on the living room couch, all of a sudden this year taking up most of three cushions.  Watch his face: his lips move, his eyebrows raise and lower in drastic measures, he smiles, winces, gapes and falls still all in a mere breath.

He practices the cliché – he devours books.  But, even better, the books devour him.

coverI used to be the same way.  When I was about ten a pen pal came to visit from all the way across the country and I didn’t notice her for a few days after discovering a copy of Madeleine L’Engle’s Meet the Austins in her suitcase.

“Want to go swimming?” she would ask.  “Want to ride bikes?  Want to watch TV?”

No.  I was reading.  I was busy becoming an Austin.  There were four kids in that family and in my family there was only me, but for the duration of the book and all subsequent readings, I owned those brothers and sisters.  I had to make sure Vicki recovered from her fall off her bike, that Maggie didn’t get Suzie into too much trouble, that nobody froze during the ice storm.  A beloved pen pal paled in comparison.

That’s what reading used to feel like: changing into something better, or at least different, for a short time.  Becoming the characters.  Changing forever.  Emily of New Moon, Ramona Cleary, any of Lois Duncan’s savvy heroines, sad Davey from Tiger Eyes, clever kids from Paula Danziger – the list is long.  I wasn’t picky.

I’m not one of those creative types who has dark, damp memories of teenage loneliness and long-lasting existential horror, though I have tried at different times to cultivate that image.  I was pretty happy.  I had friends.  I had a horse, a job I loved, parents who were wise enough to let me go most of the time.  And I had books, though not quite in the same way I had them in my first decade.  Camus and Shakespeare often jostled elbows in my backpack, they also shared space with Christopher Pike and whoever it was wrote the Sweet Valley High series – educational reading.  I was a busy kid; I had only a few empty afternoons waiting like warm pools to slide into with a book.  I read between the cracks of my daily life and didn’t mind, didn’t notice.

College was where I discovered other people liked books, too.  I never got around to sniffing out the sororities, but within the first few weeks of my first semester I became an ardent member of the English Club.  People in the English Club read aloud by candlelight and sipped red wine and walked to town to hear Martin Espada and Kurt Vonnegut.  In that cramped, dusty office on the second floor of Bartlett Hall I was introduced to e.e.cummings (I know!  So late!), James Merrill and Philip Roth in the form of Portnoy’s Complaint.

Who proved to be useful during my sophomore year when I had time to kill while visiting my boyfriend in Atlanta.  Portnoy was a keen distraction from curious thoughts about the wineglasses I found on a high shelf in my boyfriend’s kitchen, suspicions about a certain girl he drove home from campus nearly every day, sinking alarm at his obvious comfort in her apartment when we went to visit.  Portnoy kept me oddly sane during a tumultuous three-week visit.  By the time I boarded a plane heading back to the frozen north, the book was a battered companion after having been read a few dozen times.  No human friend could have withstood my needy attentions like that.

Reading as self-defense – a technique I’ve used often.  Whenever I travel, I bring a familiar book to keep invasive home sickness at bay.  A death in the family?  I escape grieving guests to read upstairs in my bed.  Marital eruptions?  When the dust settles I can be found behind a book.  Better than drugs or alcohol for numbing the occasional pain of daily life.

But the way I read in college was different from the way I read as a child.  I read from afar.  I noticed technique, I could sift through the narrative and explain why a book worked.  I loved Roth, Garcia Marquez, Ford and O’Brien, but they were never able to maintain the spell that L’Engle could cast over the whole of me.  Not that L’Engle is a better writer.  But I was a different reader.

Graduate school was where I met writers and read their books and realized that real people wrote the books I loved.  Not that I thought books arrived from some celestial source, but I’d never had a conversation with a writer whose name appeared on a book jacket or two.  Before this, my wish to be a writer had shared characteristics with my wish to be a ballerina.  Never mind I hadn’t had a dance class since I was three.  But Francois Camoin, Abby Frucht, Victoria Redel – they had written books, and they were sitting across the lunch table from me.

Knowing the authors did nothing to decrease the distance I felt from the books I held in my hands.  Instead, as I learned better how to decipher the coded technique in any text, that highway between me and the book grew longer.  As I became a better writer, I became a more distant reader.

When my first child was born I prepared by reading Carol Shields’ Unless.  Other expectant moms read thick how-to manuals.  I dove headfirst into a story about a mother who acutely misses her daughter, about a daughter who confronts a harshness that alters the way she enters the world.  I credit the book for getting me through 24 hours of hard labor.  Not towards the end when there were so many people with me.  But in the beginning of birth pains, at home while my husband snored in the other room, I escaped the so-far minimal disruption by kneeling on the floor and hovering over the book, rocking my body back and forth.  Pain in my belly, pain in the book.

coverBabies arrive and yes, you might spend a bizarre amount of time watching them sleep, but you also might get a tiny bit bored and long for something normal to do.  Like finish one of your favorite books.  With my second baby I read Paula Fox’s first memoir, Borrowed Finery, and with my third – well, don’t tell him, but I can’t remember.  There were two other children who still needed my reassurance and advice, and brains can be foggy after giving birth.  I know I read something, though.  Perhaps it was self-defense again; perhaps I look to books to protect me from life’s ultimate highs and lows; maybe I am addicted to the parallel highs and lows books have to offer.  I see the world through book-colored glasses.

Now I am a professional reader.  Reviewing books is one of several profit-driven jobs I do in between the tasks related to the care of three little boys and a house and a husband and a plethora of chickens.  And reviewing has perhaps changed the way I read more than any other life shift.  I read faster.  I could, if I weren’t so inconveniently honest, write a comprehensive and accurate review of most of the (bad) books after only 20 pages.  But I keep going.  I read with an ear open to possible quotes, I look for mistakes, patterns of textual mayhem, suggestions on how to improve the next book.  Some days, reading all these bad books is enough to make me turn to television.

But there are good things about bad books.  I read over my own fiction with an ear bent precisely toward what can go wrong.  I read like a reader instead of a writer.

covercovercoverWhen I find myself audience to a good review book the sensation is akin to that felt while watching my middle boy learn to ride his bike.  With fewer moments of sheer fear.  I slow down, I bite my tongue to keep from cheering out loud, and I type very, very fast after I put the book down.  I swoon over these books – The Dark Side of Love, Last Night in Montreal, The Cold Earth.  And sometimes, even when the youngest son shrieks for cookies and the oldest laments the lack of toilet paper in the downstairs bathroom and the middle child begs loudly for a new bike, I don’t quite hear them.  I have been devoured.

Am I a happier reader now than I was when I was eight?  Is today’s generation happier than our cavemen ancestors?  Evolution both solves problems and creates new ones; as plenty of recent books explain: happiness is relative.  I still love to read.  Reading might be sweeter now that I fall in love with fewer books.  And sometimes knowing why I love a certain book is a sweetness in itself.

On my way to bed these days I pass my oldest boy still awake, eyes roaming the page in ever-widening sweeps.  He’s tired.  “But I can’t stop reading,” he whispers.

I know the feeling.

[Image credit: Aurore D]





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16 Responses to “Evolution of a Reader”

  1. Tony Krch
    at 7:10 am on July 19, 2010

    Wow Andi! Just after reading this short sample I know without a doubt that I’d love to read probably pretty much anything you write. Your writing style kind of tends to grab me right away, which is rather rare for me.

    So, what do you have published or about to be published, ’cause I’d love to buy my autographed copy early on.

    Hugs, and hugs to Mike. Sounds like y’all are doing great and I don’t even have words to describe how happy I am for you! :)

  2. Jennifer
    at 7:48 am on July 19, 2010

    The writer of those Sweet Valley books was Francine Pascal, I think. Or was that just a pen name? There’s a bit of story to that, if I remember correctly, but I read a lot of Sweet Valley books growing up. It’s interesting what happens when you mature and realize that the people who wrote your beloved books had/have real lives. In my case, I was (and still am) a real fan of Enid Blyton. It was only a few months ago that I learned how negatively many parents and BBC people thought of her writing. As a kid, I didn’t care. I was enthralled by her world and her characters. I can’t pinpoint the exact difference between reading as a kid and reading now but there really is one. Hopefully, I’ll never lose book lust.

  3. Andi
    at 9:12 am on July 19, 2010

    J, I think you’re right, Francine Pascal. Funny, I knew I could do a google search and come up with her name within half a second while I was writing this piece, but it felt like a more authentic reflection of the process if I left it forgotten. But now I wonder if it’s truer to search out every fragment, simply because we can. Because that’s the world we now inhabit. And would I have left out the name if she was of greater literary muscle and therefore embarrassing to have forgotten? Hmmm…

  4. Mike
    at 10:53 am on July 19, 2010

    Leaving the author forgotten was the right move, I think. Leaves the writer reachably fallible, closer to the reader. Great piece, Andi.

  5. Jen
    at 11:15 am on July 19, 2010

    I, too, fell in love with Madeline L’Engle’s books. Now my 9 year old son is reading her!

  6. Pamela Caldwell
    at 1:30 pm on July 19, 2010

    What a lovely piece. Thanks.

  7. Bronwyn
    at 1:38 pm on July 19, 2010

    Wow Cold Earth and Last Night in Montreal look really good.
    I too miss the days before I began blogging and working in publishing – just getting lost in whatever book I really felt like reading, and it being MY own hobby, not to do with a job, or anything.

  8. Jennifer
    at 7:58 pm on July 19, 2010

    Hmm… I don’t think doing one or the other makes your reflection any less true. Had you chosen to look it up on google, you would still have the same train of thought, right? The only difference being that you now know the author’s name, like a piece of your memory jostled back in place. Er… I wonder if I’m making any sense.

  9. Cindy
    at 7:42 am on July 20, 2010

    I loved the Emily of New Moon and Vicky Austin books. Thoughtful books about thoughtful girls.

  10. Jen
    at 10:23 am on July 20, 2010

    Wow, that was just the essay I needed to get through my morning. Good to know that people can review books without sounding like pompous windbags. Thanks much!

  11. Kirk
    at 9:41 am on July 21, 2010

    Fantastic piece, Andi. Portnoy’s Complaint was my first experience with “literary fiction” and I have many fond memories of reading his early works.

  12. Cyndy
    at 1:59 am on July 22, 2010

    I was sucked in by the reference to L’Engle, who remains my first favorite author, and sold by the description of passing the torch. I just shut my daughter’s light off at 12:30. It’s long past her bedtime, but it’s summer, and she was alternately reading and waiting for me to ask a question on Twitter of one of HER favorite authors. She got a reply back and probably went to sleep with her nose buried in the book, amazed that the creator of one of those worlds she inhabits for a while took the time to answer her question.

    I’m jealous. I miss those days myself.

  13. links for 2010-10-26 « Unjustly
    at 9:30 am on October 26, 2010

    [...] The Millions : Evolution of a Reader Am I a happier reader now than I was when I was eight? Is today’s generation happier than our cavemen ancestors? Evolution both solves problems and creates new ones; as plenty of recent books explain: happiness is relative. I still love to read. Reading might be sweeter now that I fall in love with fewer books. And sometimes knowing why I love a certain book is a sweetness in itself. On my way to bed these days I pass my oldest boy still awake, eyes roaming the page in ever-widening sweeps. He’s tired. “But I can’t stop reading,” he whispers. I know the feeling. (tags: reading learning books) [...]

  14. Amy Whipple » Because @JudyBlume is on Twitter
    at 9:56 pm on December 31, 2010

    [...] summers beachside) from readers’ formative years. In a similar vein, Andi Diehn writes about her evolution as a writer over at The Millions (shout out, Sweet Valley High!).  For me (okay, for like every female writer [...]

  15. Mike Nam
    at 7:59 pm on January 24, 2011

    Oh the English Club office…I was quite happy when I was given the key. It was a nice place to take a nap when on campus as well, heh.

    Oh, Interesting accompanying image at the top as well…I have Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams, and the author autographed it for me at the old Borders book store that used to be in the World Trade Center mall.

    And finally, loved the post!

  16. Elissa
    at 9:25 pm on April 26, 2011

    Wonderful article, Andi! It makes me think about how my reading has evolved as well. I loved Madeline L’Engle and actually just reread A Wrinkle In Time, which has to be one of the most prominent stories about hope and love ever written.

    I find lately I’m much more into non-fiction, especially memoirs as real life is so amazing in itself. But I still love a good story.

    Keep up the good work, Andi! You’re an inspiration.

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