Wednesday 20 May 2009

I read, therefore I am

a view of the bookshelf
just within arm's reach of my desk

Most bloggers are keen readers -- and as such, will ruefully acknowledge that blogging time tends to eat into the reading time that would otherwise be devoted to novels, poetry, newspapers, etc. Of course, the blogging paradox (just one of many, really) is that blogs are always acquainting us with hitherto-unknown reading material . . . even as they erode the spare minutes that might be used to read all of this wonderful stuff.

One of my favorite "Texas" novels, Moving On by Larry McMurtry, opens with the main character sitting in a old Ford, reading Catch-22 and eating a Hershey bar. These words always stick in my mind: Sometimes she ate casually and read avidly -- other times she read casually and ate avidly.

I've come to think of blog-reading and novel-reading in just this same way. Sometimes blogging is my meat and drink, and novel-reading is just a bedtime snack; at other times, that order of importance reverses itself.

In the past week, I've been feasting on novels -- and been too preoccupied, too satiated, to venture much into the blog-world. In a 24 hour period lasting from Monday afternoon (when I bought the book at Waterstone's in Reading) to Tuesday lunch-time (when I ignored both phone and doorbell in order to finish it), I was gorging myself on the un-put-downable Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig. I had exactly the kind of reading experience described by theorists as "unconscious delight." As I child, I experienced the reading trance all the time: the world outside of my book would cease to exist, and I would be in the book. I also think of it as flashlight-under-the-covers reading . . . because just like my childish avid reader self, I could not go to sleep (bedtime or not) until I had completely consumed the story.

I only experience this avidity, this total book greed, a few times a year now . . . and I often wonder how much of it is the book, and how much the need to be lost in reading? Pondering this question made me remember a reading meme that Peggy, of Johnstone Journal, tagged me for a couple of months ago.

Out of all the thousands of books we read, why do certain ones cast a spell? I couldn't begin to answer that question, no more than I could read a strand of DNA, and yet I am certain that there are magical words and worlds that have formed the person that I am.

Childhood favorites:
Dr. Seuss
Frances Hodgson Burnett's books
Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House" books
Maud Hart Lovelace's "Betsy Tacy" books
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Comfort reading:
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Jane Austen's oeuvre
The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
Laurie Colwin's novels and short stories
Anne Fadiman's essays
The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
Gifts from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
Journals by May Sarton
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Adult novels that I read at an impressionable age:
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Couples by John Updike
The Alexandria Quartet by Laurence Durrell
All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
anything that I found hidden under my mother's bed

Unforgettable literary heroines
Maggie Tulliver
Jane Eyre
Jo March
Lily Bart
Elizabeth Bennet
Isabel Archer
Madame Bovary
Anna Karenina
Tess of the D'Urbervilles
Blanche Dubois
Aurora Greenway
Susie Salmon

Memorable books I've read this year:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
A Fortunate Child by Elizabeth Wix
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

I've made up categories to suit myself, but if you would like to see the original meme, read this. Play along, if you please . . .


Stella Jones said...

I too, lose myself in books. It is an enchanting world into which I can escape whenever I like. Books I have read before and enjoyed give me the comfort felt by the visit of an old and trusted friend.
Blessings, Star

Expat From Hell said...

We should all exchange our lists. I found some new ideas in yours. Thanks for posting this - and for reading. Looking forward to my next "trance" at the beach somewhere....maybe with a Hershey bar, even.


Catalyst said...

As I read this, I am wearing a tee shirt from my bookstore days that states: "The more you read the more you know!"

ArtSparker said...

The reading trance is like nothing else, and it's thrilling to discover a new author you can trust for this. I read the Alexandria Quartets sometime in my teens - although I think it's Sherlock Holmes that was the first adult literature I read as a child.

Elizabeth said...

I think we are cut from the same cloth about books.
Do you remember the old Melanie song from a million years ago...It was about a pair of brand new roller skates? One line was:
(I think)
"I wish I could find a good book to live in..."
Yes, yes!
My whole life has been spent in that pursuit to the detriment of real life, maybe.
I feel really sad for people who find no joy in reading though I'm sure there are lots of pleasures that I miss out on.
I'm sure your US readers will be surprised you went to a Waterstones in READING (!)
Terrribly touched you mentioned A Fortunate Child.
I think I would love to do this meme but it will take me a few days to ponder and plot.
Yes, Blogland is a great place to swap book ideas.
A stunning post and so many of your choices are my choices too.

Unknown said...

I love book lists, so many I've read, so many new titles to meet.

adore the quote....

just finished 'Ahab's Wife', have a couple of old poetry fav's sitting at my side, 'The Essential Rumi' and 'Why I Wake Early' Mary Oliver....

good idea for a post...

Tess Kincaid said...

I have found that I am reading far less now that I have discovered the world of blog. But I am thoroughly enjoying the blog community and learning just as much, if not more, than if I was reading a solitary book.

I love to browse another's library shelves. It tells you so much about the owner, doesn't it. Lovely list.

Justine Picardie said...

Lovely post. Completely agree with you on Nancy Mitford as the perfect comfort read. And I grew up with the girls in the little house on the prairie.

♥ Boomer ♥ said...

A great and inspiring post! With a long weekend coming up, I'm ready to read ... you've provided great ideas! Our library always satisfies!

Justine Picardie said...

PS. If only I had a Hershey bar right now...

Bee said...

Star - I know that some people never go back and reread, but I maintain that almost any book worth reading is also worth rereading.

Expat from Hell - I am eagerly awaiting your list! You better eat that Hershey bar avidly if you are carrying it to the beach.

Catalyst - True; and yet, the more you read, the more you forget! (I heartily approve of the sentiment, though.)

ArtSparker - I'm so glad that you know what I mean by reading trance! I love that total immersion.

Elizabeth - The other day, little daughter was trying to explain to me why she loved your Jane books so much -- and she was describing, I think, your Melanie lyric. You have created a fictional world that she wants to dwell in. Reading, England! (How appropriate; didn't even notice myself.) Thanks so much for this . . .xx

Stephanie - Book lovers are always suckers for book lists. I hope you will post one.

Willow - Yes, blogs are interesting worlds full of beautiful, clever and funny writing . . . just like "proper" books! (When I visit someone's home, I immediately case the bookshelves.)

Justine - Thanks so much for visiting! My little daughter and I have been reading through the Little House books all of this year. I am working on a post (somewhat) about them, actually.

bfs Mimi - The best thing about books: You will never, ever run out!

Justine - I'm rather addicted to plain chocolate M&M's right now . . . you can just let them melt, slowly, on the tongue.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I am drooling. What a fabulous stack; what a well though list. I like how you divide your favorites. I see several of mine in your collection. You remind me that I should reread Gift from the Sea yet again. Great to see Elizabeth Wix’s novel up there with other modern classics. Fun meme.

Beth said...

I too am certain that the books I’ve read throughout my life have formed me – created so much of who I am. They continue to do so. And I am eternally grateful for that “magic.”
Love your lists – I recognize my “self” in them...

Margaret Gosden said...

"I read, therefore I am" is such a good borrowed line!
My bookshelf looks like yours. I live a block away from the Strand bookstore in NYC and other curbside booksellers. Right now I am reading Olivia Manning, the Balkan Trilogy. Once I find an author I like, I have to read all she has written - usually I prefer women authors, though I do Like Rex Stout and Alexander McCall Smith. My basic interest begins with Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury era, then certain British contemporary novelists. Thanks for sharing so much of your avidity - I don't feel quite so odd now for preferring to be more in a book than out of it!

rosedale's 4head said...

great post, Bee. i have a very very very similar scene but in our bedroom. i posted a while back how the book desk-shelf towers over our bed and my other half complains about it, but still...he's never touched it...

reading and eating...essentials to a good, healthy life....

Anne said...

One of the best bumper stickers I've ever seen said, "who needs drugs? I go broke buying books!"

Getting lost in a good book is one of the most wonderful feelings. I love looking up and realizing that hours have passed, and all the while I've been immersed in my book. I haven't done that in a while--my free time has been occupied more by cooking than by eating--but I long to do it again, especially after reading this post.

Almost all of my childhood favorite books had to do with animals: books by James Herriot and Marguerite Henry were my staples. My grandmother also got me started on the Nancy Drew mysteries, and gave me a lot of the ones that my mom had when she was growing up.

On a completely unrelated subject, at dinner on Monday I had the most delicious fried chicken I've ever tasted, and I thought of your perfect Fourth of July. Next time you're out this way we must visit Ad Hoc in Yountville, and we must do it on a Monday, as that's when they do their fried chicken.

TBM said...

I have bookmarked this post for after I have moved. I know I will really appreciate it then :-)

In an effort to organize things for our move, I've been shifting my book (hidden everywhere in the house) down to our library (the guest room/parlour/living room). I am a little appalled at how many books I've bought in the last two years. Good thing our place in The Hague has shelves a plenty!

PS I totally panicked last week and ordered some books to tie me over until I can find a good English book source in the NL. "I cannot live without books"! BTW, have you ever been to Monticello and seen Jefferson's portable bookcases? They are so clever!


Chairman Bill said...

What? No technical manuals or biographies or factual stuff? Typical woman!


Bee said...

Sarah - I know that you don't do memes, but I would love to see you do some version of this one. Books are such an interesting formative influence, I think.

Beth - I'd love to know more about your literary influences!

Margaret - I can never decide if that preference (to be inside of a book) is a good or bad thing -- all I know is that it is my favorite thing! I have a dear friend who lives near the Strand bookstore and she raves about it all the time. (Speaking of V. Woolf, I have Alison Light's recent biography on my to-read shelf.) I couldn't help but notice how much preference I, too, have for female authors.

rosedale's 4 head - Yes, that book stack sounds familiar! Occasionally, I will tackle it.

Anne - that is an excellent bumper sticker! Recession articles are always telling us to cut back on buying books, but I think it is really important to support authors. They can't get published if no one is buying books!

I never went crazy for the "animal" or "detective/mystery" genres, but I remember reading all of the James Herriots when I was about 11-12 and absolutely loving them. He was a wonderful story-teller.

About fried chicken: I've been in touch with a first cousin that I haven't seen since I was a child, and fried chicken and peach cobbler is one of his favorite meals, too. (It must be genetic?) I will definitely take you up on your offer when I next visit Northern California.

JAPRA - You can NEVER have too many books! I would definitely stockpile if I were you, because it is not easy to get English books in Holland -- although I do recall one bookstore there. I suppose you can get Amazon, though?

I went to Monticello as a child, but I don't remember much (other than the dumbwaiter) and must go again! Jefferson was a true bibliophile.

Chairman Bill - Well, I did think of doing a biography category . . . I do read those. I will be the first to admit, though, that I don't read enough non-fiction. Technical manuals? Forget about it. If a machine doesn't make intuitive sense to me, I make do without its services. They really should get some of our better fiction writers to do a bit of technical writing. ;)

Reya Mellicker said...

I do love reading, but I also love writing. Sometimes when I've done "too much" reading, I feel stuffed, like if I don't self express in some way, I'll explode.

That's when I write or draw or paint, or make a pie. Something like that. Do you know what I'm talking about?

Love your lists of favorites!!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Ah, a post after my own heart. I shall sit for long minutes with my head scrunched around, reading the books on your shelf!

Three I have enjoyed recently:

An Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
Three Bags Full by Leonie Swann
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

The Clever Pup said...

Interesting...if we were to do a Venn Diagram, our choices would only coincide once or twice. But that's what makes the world go around.

Thanks for sharing your lists. It made me stop and think.

lisahgolden said...

I used to become absorbed in books. Lately, I've been unable to do that for a number of reasons. I think perhaps I am choosing the wrong books. I think I should take a good look at your list for ideas.

Tess Kincaid said...

Bee, thanks for the heads up for the comment over at Justine Picardie's blog. I went over to say hello, and now I must read some of her works!

dogimo said...

"spare minutes, that might be used"

keen readers
will ruefully acknowledge that
time tends to eat
novels, poetry, newspapers, etc.

reading material...even as they erode
the spare minutes
to read,
words always stick in my mind

I've come to think of
all of this wonderful stuff
Unforgettable literary heroines
novels that I read at an impressionable age
too preoccupied, too satiated,
ignored both phone and doorbell

I was gorging myself on the un-put-downable
I've been feasting on novels
from Monday afternoon (when I bought the book
until I had completely consumed
time that would otherwise be devoted to
the world outside

the world outside of my book
acquainting us with hitherto-unknown
experience described by theorists
just like my childish avid reader self,
would cease to exist

and I would be in the
words and worlds
the person that I am
the story.

Bee said...

Reya - Yes, I think that I do know what you mean. That word "stuffed" is perfect.

Pamela Terry - I need to read the Alan Bennett . . . if you turn your head around, can you just see it on the shelf?

The Clever Pup - Let's see: Is The Unbearable Lightness of Being in the middle of the Venn Diagram? I've looked at your list, and I like lots of yours, too. This is a very partial list after all.

Lisa - You would love Hearts and Minds. It isn't being published in the U.S. right now . . . unfortunately.

Willow - I just wrote about Picardie's Daphne a few weeks ago. She writes a great reading blog. Don't you love the word bibliotheraphy?

dogimo - Goodness, how clever!

Lucy said...

Spot on about blogs (and Amazon for me) putting it all temptingly within reach, but then paradoxically lessening the capacity to enjoy it!

'The Puruit of Love' has to be one of my great comfort reads too...

Kathleen Stander said...

I'm back to the blog world, and couldn't wait to start with your site ... I {heart} your book list ...I'm sitting here looking at the stack I purchased last week ... as soon as my homework is finished I'm making tea and heading out to my beautiful front porch ... think I'll start with a YA selection, THE ROMANCE READERS BOOK CLUB by Julie L. Cannon. It's a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old girl who acquires a stack of forbidden romance novels and sets her sights on forming a secret book club.
Also, I'm excited to read through all your posts from the past several months. Your writing delights me!

Kathleen Stander said...

I'm back to the blog world, and couldn't wait to start with your site ... I {heart} your book list ...I'm sitting here looking at the stack I purchased last week ... as soon as my homework is finished I'm making tea and heading out to my beautiful front porch ... think I'll start with a YA selection, THE ROMANCE READERS BOOK CLUB by Julie L. Cannon. It's a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old girl who acquires a stack of forbidden romance novels and sets her sights on forming a secret book club.
Also, I'm excited to read through all your posts from the past several months. Your writing delights me!

Bee said...

Lucy - Sigh; and besides all of that, there is a bit of other life to live, too!

Kate - I am so DELIGHTED that you are back in the land of Blog. You have been missed, my friend. I bet you have such a good stack of summer (fun) reading.

Cipriano said...

Too funny.
Your blog title is my life-maxim that I have had under my own blogname for a millennia now... mine being somewhat expanded to read:
I read lots. I have a cat. I drink coffee. Therefore, I am.Cheers!
-- Cip

A Woman Of No Importance said...

I always recall my eccentric English lecturer, Kelsey Thornton, who told us in our first year at College, "Literature is the quintessential essence of life..."

Never were there words more true, and thank you for the reading list, Bee! x

A Cuban In London said...

It's wonderful to see both Seuss and Kundera in your list. The wacky and the witty.

'blogging time tends to eat into the reading time that would otherwise be devoted to novels, poetry, newspapers, etc.'

Or you could incorporate the former into the latter. Plan ahead, usually two or three weeks in advance and by the time I buy (in my case) The Guardian and The Observer at the weekend, I have enough time to sit down and enjoy both from cover to cover :-).

Manay thanks for such a fab list.

Greetings from London.