Not so very long ago, around the time I stopped watching television for a living, I began to read again, compulsively. Read books, I mean. There are plenty of other things in the typographical world to peruse: magazines, recipes, free alternative newsweeklies whose ink comes off on your fingers, badly translated instructions for installing and operating electronic equipment, unproofed Web pages, impossibly small CD liner notes, cereal boxes; but I am reading books now. Consuming them, beginning a new one the minute I finish the last — not even waiting to finish sometimes, but reading two at once, confusing characters and plots, yet creating thereby a kind of echoic dimensionality that resonates like real life. Or something.
It’s not exactly that I can‘t help myself — I can quit whenever I want to, I can — but neither am I quite in control. The urge, even the ability, to read comes in its own time; who knows how the ground is prepared, the mind made ready? Leisure seems to have nothing to do with it, though reading is that nonpareil thing we will get around to when we have the time, when we’re not too wrung out, too benumbed at the end of the day for anything but television (though if you stop watching television, I am here to testify, you automatically gain energy). There are days, months, years when — overworked, underworked, it doesn‘t matter — the most straightforward prose is as resistant to my ken as advanced calculus (or, to be honest, simple algebra). Then the synapses click suddenly into alignment and I am off and running, conquering volumes that have sat for years reproachfully upon the shelf, cruising the aisles of my local independent bookseller (Chevalier’s, on Larchmont) looking for new action. Fat, thin, young, old, foreign, native, it‘s all the same to me — Come on home, baby, let’s get busy. I‘m living on Book Time: staying up too late, lingering overlong in coffeehouses, almost missing appointments, neglecting this column, all for the sake of finishing another page, another chapter, another volume.
As afflictions go, this is of course more blessing than curse. I took advantage of my last attack of bibliomania to remedy a near-complete ignorance of 19th-century English literature, of which I am now — having read a bit of the Brontes, of Eliot, of Hardy, of Trollope, of Thackeray — less completely ignorant. (I marvel still at how little of substance I was required to read in 13 years of public school education, and how ill-read I remain in the Harvard Classics sense of being really well-read. Not that everyone subscribes to the Harvard Classics theory of well-readness.) Now, as then, I’m reading not only to read, but to have read. I am today, for example, a person who has read two books by Hermann Hesse, whereas a month ago — when Steppenwolf was just a rock band to me — I was not. I have done something! I am different! But I have no overarching plan; I discriminate only in that I choose books I think will give me pleasure. (When I was younger, my reading was economically determined by what turned up cheap in used-book stores. And when I was younger than that, I mostly read Mad magazine and the Hardy Boys.) For the rest, I am happy to drift; one book suggests another, one author the next, or more of the same, and if I‘ve been willful at all it’s in avoiding a plan, having in these last days undertaken not only Saul Bellow and Henry Green, but Lemony Snicket, Lewis Carroll, Haruki Murakami, H.G. Wells, Woody Guthrie and Fleming — Ian Fleming.
Appropriately, my current run of reading began with The Bookshop, by the late Penelope Fitzgerald, a novel that had twice defeated me though it is neither long nor difficult; finishing it whetted my appetite, and I went through the rest of her corpus like candy, which was both satisfying (I‘ve read all her novels!) and sad (I’ve read all her novels). The very fact that I‘d come to the end of something made me all the hungrier for something more. More places to visit — Fitzgerald had a particular gift for evoking times and cultures not her own — more lives to lead. Reading, when you get down into it, when the text becomes transparent, the page a window to walk through, to fall through, is a kind of dream from which it is hard to wake. The signal frustration of existence is that (pace the Hindus) you only live once, only ever get to be you, locked for the entire ride inside your skin, your skull. But in books you not only inhabit the interior life of invented characters, but meld with the authorial consciousness, of which the written word is a kind of psychical imprint — a consciousness that, though it might have been extinguished a thousand years ago, re-creates itself in every new reader. Books are real-world time machines, teleporters, pan-universal wormholes. How could they not be addictive?
How long will it last? Yesterday, I went . . . hours between books, got hung up on the first page of a new one, and thought, It’s over. And with so much left to read. I haven‘t even started on the Greeks, the Romans, the Babysitters Club . . . Even considering what time and taste have cast aside, there is a mountain of literature to scale, a mountain that grows faster than you can climb it, and which was already insurmountable the day you were born. It’s depressing, in a way, and so very much a metaphor for life itself. (Sorry — it is!) But it‘s better in the end to strike out for the top than to moon about at the bottom; even a few steps up that slope the view improves, the shape and patterns of the world grow more legible.
In any event, it was just a scare — I found a book and began again. Just a little higher up that hill. Excelsior! Read on!