“A Book Is Forever”

First-time reading experiences can be transportive.


When I brought my 90-year-old immigrant grandfather, a factory worker, a copy of my first book, he held it in his hands, kissed me, and told me, half in Yiddish, half in English, how proud he was.

I was embarrassed, self-deprecating. “Grandpa, it’s just a book,” I said disingenuously, as I was as proud in my way as he was in his.

“No, Ronald,” he said with a combination of earnest passion and simple wisdom. “Work is work, but a book is forever.”

And so it is — and always has been for me. The world of books is not one I consciously aspired to or even imagined might be the center of my career when I was a young man wondering about his future. If it surprises me that reading and reviewing and writing and selling books has been such a central and important part of my life for over a half-century, I can, on reflection, imagine the moment my bookish life was conceived.

An only child living in a small town in northern New Jersey, I was encouraged by both my parents to be a serious student. My mother constantly pushed me to read. She read voraciously and read to me regularly, sitting at the edge of my bed before I went to sleep or when I was sick. She bought me a membership in a book club called something like the Junior Literary Guild. She pushed me in the direction of a dictionary every time I asked her about the meaning of a word.

In retrospect, however, I vividly remember one moment when I first fell in love with a book, with reading, with the transporting into another world that uniquely comes from reading.

That experience does not always happen, but it is always the same when it does: I move into another world, an imaginary one created by the author’s story, as if I’ve fallen into a deep and private tunnel leading to a special place. I leave my world and enter a new one. I am swept away, as if by a strong tide. I can’t stop; I don’t want to.

I read compulsively, faster and faster, not wanting to be interrupted. I am lost in another time and place.

New York Times commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg described reading as “secretive, profoundly private,” an exalting experience that “leads you quickly into worlds.” At these times, when I am forced to stop reading by the demands of the real world, I cannot wait to return to my special place, for it has become my place now.

I rush back to enter the door to that imaginary world and resume that absorbing experience. Then, when the end of the story is near, I slow down, not wanting the private, mind-expanding, almost sensual experience to end. It’s probably for this reason that Nancy Banks-Smith has written, “Agatha Christie has given more pleasure in bed than any other woman.”

I was about 10 years old, home with the grippe, which is what we called a bad cold in those calm days just after World War II. We lived on the second floor of a three-story brick house. The small front room that looked out onto the street below was called a sunroom. Seated on a leather lounge chair, I picked up a book that had come from that literary club my mother had enlisted to supplement my public education. Wrapped in my flannel bathrobe, I opened up this newly arrived book. It was Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.

I had read or been read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but I hadn’t heard of this one. As I turned the pages, I became aware that something I’d never felt before was happening. I was leaving my body and place — my self — and entering the world of this story. It was a journey from which I shall never return. That experience is the “passport to the world” that Elisabeth Egan wrote about recently in the New York Times.

I wonder how serendipitous — for this is how I often describe what has happened in my life — it was that I became a lawyer, an author, and a literary agent. Is it too Freudian a jump to speculate whether that first time, that mind-expanding read of The Prince and the Pauper, opened for me not only the world of one book, but the vast possibilities of the world of books?

When I tell other authors, avid readers, and book lovers about my “first time,” they often relate a comparable experience, one they recount with profound feeling years later. Maya Angelou recalled in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings the life-affecting influence of a mentor in the Arkansas community of her youth who told her, “Language is man’s way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.”

Books speak to us and take us to a place where we want to go, Egan wrote. It doesn’t always happen, but readers know that special escape brings joy when it comes.

Usually, the phenomenon occurs in children. A generation of adolescents from my era was inspired to keep reading by J.D. Salinger’s remarkable The Catcher in the Rye, just as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series has turned this generation onto books. But whether the books are well known or less familiar, the experiences of many readers are similar to mine. And when they relate their personal stories, it always comes with a wistful, happy look in their eyes.

Will this experience change with the advent of electronic books? Will my grandchildren experience what I and others of my generation did, holding a book in our hands as we fell down the rabbit hole of reading?

On a short flight recently, a young woman sat beside me and opened her laptop to read, as I opened the paperback I was reading, underlining, and filling with scribbled marginalia. We sat silently the whole flight. When the plane landed, she shut down her computer, and I dropped my paperback into my carrying case.

“I see we both like reading on planes,” I said to her as we rose to depart.

“Yes,” she replied, “but you have one book, and I have 2,100!”

I didn’t ask what her first-time reading experience was that led her to carry her own personal library. But I often do so now when talking to a fellow book lover…

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney, author, and literary agent. His newest book, written as R.L. Sommer, is Courting Justice.

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