Reading is my vice. If I’m not writing or drawing or making smoothies for lunch or walking Bisou, I’m reclining on cushions, reading. I’m not proud of this. Even though I mostly read what the culture considers “good” books, and reading is supposed to engage the mind more actively than watching TV, I know I should read less.
I read to get away from the vicissitudes of daily life, from worries about the future, and above all I read to get a break from what Jung called the endless “circumambulation of the self.” And I read for company–the company of the author, whose voice reaches me across space and time and opens doors to worlds that I would otherwise never know. Sometimes, when bits of those worlds turn out to be almost exact replicas of bits of my own world, I feel a shock of recognition, and the author and I become fast friends.
I especially like it if my author friend has published many books, so that I can spend months in her company. I fell in love with Iris Murdoch’s mind, and with the way she invents enormously intelligent characters who are at the same time enormously foolish. Luckily for me, she wrote 26 novels. I felt bereft when I reached the final one (Jackson’s Dilemma, written as she began her decline into dementia), so I read them all again. A year or so later, missing her company, I went back for a third reading.
Then there is Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 novels on his daily train commute to his job with the British postal service. I don’t think I’ve read them all yet, but I’m almost there. Trollope’s characters, unlike those of his contemporary, Dickens, are never wholly saints or sinners, but complicated mixtures of both. I don’t know whether Trollope was a good man, but I don’t see how anyone so fully in sympathy with humans in all their imperfections could be anything but kind.
I am not a fiction writer, yet certain novelists teach me to write. At the moment, I’m reading my way through Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series (25 novels), in the order in which they were written. I care very little about who murdered whom, or how the endearing Wexford solved the crime. But I am agog at Rendell’s rendering of physical detail. She tells us how every character, no matter how minor, looks, speaks, and is dressed; how houses are furnished, from wallpaper to floor coverings; how gardens bloom or wither in various seasons. And she’s wonderful on weather, especially rain, as one would guess, given her nationality. How did she manage, as she built her complicated edifice of scenes and clues, to have the mental space and imagination to write all those descriptions?
And then there are the writers who make me laugh, to whom I devoutly give thanks every time I open one of their books. I read them mostly for therapy, since I’m not sure that it’s possible to learn to write humor (it’s either in your DNA, or it isn’t). At difficult points in my life you can calculate my distress levels by the number of P.G. Wodehouse novels and short-story collections on my bedside table.
Aided and abetted in my vice by my Kindle, which can waft almost any book in the world to me in the middle of the night in the middle of a blizzard, I read my life away. My electronic library contains 496 volumes, safely stored where they never need dusting.
At night, lying in bed Kindle in hand, I tell myself that I should turn off the light and go to sleep. True, reading is good for writers, but it can also replace writing, and that is a danger for me. And I think about Cervantes’ warning, in Don Quixote, against other dangers of excessive reading. Enamored of novels of chivalry, Don Quixote sold his land to buy books, and spent day and night reading volume after volume. Eventually, Cervantes tells us, “as a result of too much reading and not enough sleep, his brain dried up, and he went mad.”
I’m not there yet, but some days my brain does feel a little “dry,” and I worry that I might end up like my compatriot Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.