I was not born an egghead. As a child my favorite activities were daydreaming, hanging around in the kitchen (the lady gossip was excellent), watching TV on my belly, or pretending to be those characters when I played outside. I was mostly a watchful person. Somewhere around ten I snagged a copy of “Charlotte’s Web”. I had always loved reading in school simply because I could; it was magical. However Charlotte, Wilbur and Fern led me into another world, quieter than the kitchen, less abrasive than fighting with siblings over a channel, and wonderfully solitary. I was alone but with wonderful company on E.B. White’s animal farm. There I was introduced to pathos, irony, satire, tragedy and sweet sadness, all presented in a perfect square package, one I could ponder over and look away from when I chose but had me completely under its spell. When I reached the final chapter (spoiler – it ain’t good) I ran into the living room to share the horrible climax of the novel, tears streaming down my face, drama in high gear. “ Sha-Sha-Charlotte....is...dead!” I sobbed. Everyone got a kick out of my new dramatics but something had occurred that could not be ridiculed away. I had just read my first good book.
Once I got a taste of quality, a new man was born. Greatness rubs off and I wanted more. At age twelve I received a brand new pale gray ten speed bike and trips to the library became one of my normal routines. I would go in and relish the cool air-conditioned spaces, pockets jangling with all the nickels I would need to Xerox anything xeroxable, and hit the biography sections. I wasn’t after fiction to begin with (who knew where to look) so I dove into books about movies and sleazy Hollywood biographies (“Marilyn Monroe – Confidential”, a juicy tell-all written by her maid, really delivered). I slowly began to develop a new sense that what you read became you. I could develop myself: become smarter, sophisticated, and elite. I could even educate myself, an amazing concept that had never occurred to me before. Sooner or later (perhaps in high school) I found my way to better and better books. I chewed my nails as Atlanta burned in “Gone With The Wind”, vicariously became a Jew in Leon Uris' “QB VII”, an alien in Robert A. Heinlein’s “Stranger In A Strange Land”, a Japanese warrior in Clavell’s “Shogun”, a six year old girl in Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird”, and a true Southern decadent reading Faulkner’s “The Sound and The Fury” for 12th grade AP English. This one might have sealed my fate, a book at once so literary and so cinematic in its effects that I can remember the chair I was sitting in reading it, riveted with quality. This was a book, and I was changed by it.
The better the books I read the less I was able to indulge in the ordinary. Anything mechanical bored me: this ruined detective stories and lurid thrillers because the plots were based on formulas, clues and contrivances. Once I began to read authors with a point of view I wanted ever more esoteric and artistic experiences through them. This stage included the wonderful Eudora Welty (“Delta Wedding”), Joseph Conrad (“Heart Of Darkness”), Robert Nathan (a forgotten writer of gentle, poetic satires most famous for the movie versions of “The Portrait of Jennie” and “The Bishop’s Wife”). All of the writers during this period shared a quality I look for today: a careful, spare and poetic style. In my 20s this led me toward wonderful artists as well as writers, spanning past fiction toward art: Cocteau, Oscar Wilde, Tennessee William’s short prose, Flannery O’Connor, Paul Bowles, the even nuttier Jane Bowles, Capote, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, Cheever, Fitzgerald, the exquisite E.M.Forster, the bizarre and Gothic Midwesterner James Purdy and on and on, each identifiable as a unique voice and a careful stylist. I believe that the best writers slave over highly selective prose so that we don’t have to. Reading the hard diamond sparkle of Flannery O’Connor’s work is as wickedly delicious as any written work could be; so good it reads for you. You may come out of it a sadomasochistic Lutheran with a rank world view but hey it is art.
Now that I feel like my persona has been developed (and I am not so bent on posing as an genius or aesthete) my reading choices are ever more select. Perhaps most of the groundwork has been laid so I am no longer ravenous to improve myself. I read four or five novels a year, usually very good ones, and savor them slowly. As I read less I worship print more. I love the qualities of books as objects: hard bound or soft I want good creamy paper in a heavy stock, a nicely chosen font (not too small) and a nice new bookmark. I love the smell of a new book (and even an old one); I love the thrill that a tightly bound and unread book gives off. I open the volume right in the middle and put my nose in; they always smell wonderful and feel wonderful. I love owning them too. Of course I still have my library card but books are such a wonderful indulgence: the graphic design is always carefully executed to pull in just the exact segment of the populace they are targeted for. Books make a home warmer by being on the shelves. Amazon may be evil but a book cheaply purchased at the touch of a button – who could resist? I am sorry the small bookstore is dying but I cannot resist ordering them instead. (There is also an irony in that I often order gorgeous out of print things that arrive with their library card pockets glued in the back, safely in their mylar sleeves. I love them. I feel like a criminal!)
We live in a digital age. If you are reading this now you are reading it online and may even be enjoying it regardless of this detail. I, too, used to buy the New York Times religiously Monday through Friday and preached the benefits of a paper document to scan – what could match it? – and here I am reading it online every day (on the day before it is actually published) and I am fully embracing it. If the writing is good who cares if I am immersed? I do not fear for the printed word. Books will always be with us because they are real and they are intimate. Is it possible the internet will sort the wheat from the chaff? Maybe only the best books will merit print in a future world.
My wish is that if you do not have a collection you begin one immediately and start cultivating that style. Stop bitching about ebooks and invest in your own library! Let your bookshelves be your calling card; let them tell your guests secrets about you. Let them tell secrets to you. Once you start collecting your tastes will be dramatic and obvious (I may be a book snob but if someone has the nerve to collect Barbara Cartland romances I am impressed). Of all pointless habits (let's be honest - we rarely reread them and I never lend them) this must be one of the most delightful, cultivated, and civilized. You may not come out of it as the model of a perverse Southern aristocrat but you do your own magic. I have already made my choices.
For Diane - as bookish as they come.