- by J. Shepperd
- December 23, 2013
The gift that actually does keep on giving.
I don’t know when I discovered reading but wish I did. Imagine remembering the details of the moment you met the thing that would give you thousands of hours of pleasure your whole life long? My earliest memory is of sneaking into the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house with my oldest brother to read forbidden texts. Truthfully, what we most often read was obituary columns in the local newspaper; our discovery that lots of people died but no one we knew caused us to smile at one another, feel a little safer and give ourselves permission to fill another afternoon.
Years later, every time I put down One Hundred Years of Solitude, my sister snatched it. We were living together in Paris with very few English language books. Both of us appreciated the easy work of reading in our native tongue by night after speaking another language all day. I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude many more times without the competition and every time I’ve wanted to be distracted from the life I was living. I traveled the same roads through A Sport and A Past Time that Philip Dean did, arriving in small French villages led by the words that James Salter carefully juxtaposed in one beautiful sentence after another.
On my honeymoon in Egypt, again without enough books and perhaps the very first sign of incompatible compatibility, I played the book thief to my new husband. He brought Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, but I was determined to read it first and with minimum interruption. I stole the book, hid it and sneakily read while he napped and swam. We kept travel diaries, toured, ate, made love, and read books. In fact, what I then discovered, envied and eventually came to respect is that he reads faster and more than me. I may have brought Ryszard Kapuściński into the house but he finished all the books first.
My promise to my young self was to read every book in the Library of Congress.
To me, a new book feels like the first leg of arrival in a strange country. You trek through airports, train stations; ride taxis, walk sidewalks and finally, you arrive to a sumptuously outfitted lobby with well-placed furnishings and warm lighting. Someone is waiting to settle you. A second person is ready to accompany you up the elevator, roll your bag down the hall and open the doorway into your much awaited prize –a room that will comfort and coddle you for the next few days.
I’ve browsed, disarranged shelves, turned pages, allowed myself to be caught up in first lines and fleeting rhythms. Finally, it’s time to read. Best case scenario is early on a well-lit day with free hours ahead of you. I put on the kettle, check my favorite reading chair, making sure it is unoccupied by dog, cat, husband, and yes, even children. Happily, I pat the chair cushions a few times, clear space for my teacup on the small table nearby. Then, try to make Scottish Breakfast tea, a rather sophisticated undertaking which I often get wrong, even for myself. It’s a story best taken up on a different occasion though I’m sure a true tea drinker will already understand. Must be in the timing. Anyway, I sit, hold the book carefully in my lap, smooth my hand over the cover and open the page. (My other favorite place to read is in a bubble bath. Another day?)
Reading, if you’re lucky, is a two way possession. You have the book and the book has you. The reader gives oneself to the story, the story takes hold, the reader held hostage, gently or otherwise, but what the story wants for the reader is little. It is a gift that asks, in fact, insists that the reader become an accomplice. A book is a boomerang and tickle for the subconscious. It is time earned and doubly, triply spent feeding your soul, your brain, and dare I suggest, improving your character. And all you seem to be doing is taking in words you already know, and interpreting them on an inner canvas. Only you get the pictures right.
The truly wonderful thing? Every time you turn around, there is another new book. My promise to myself now - just read!