Read How Reading Changed My Life Online

Authors: Anna Quindlen

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Literary, #Social Science, #Popular Culture, #Women's Studies

How Reading Changed My Life

BOOK: How Reading Changed My Life
2.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

A
NNA
Q
UINDLEN
H
OW
R
EADING
C
HANGED
M
Y
L
IFE

“In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the ‘shalt nots’ of the Ten Commandments. I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. One of my favorite childhood books,
A Wrinkle in Time
, described that evil, that wrong, existing in a different dimension from our own. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.”

Also by Anna Quindlen

Black and Blue
One True Thing
Thinking Out Loud
Object Lessons
Living Out Loud
A Short Guide to a Happy Life
Blessings
Loud and Clear
Being Perfect
Rise and Shine
Good Dog. Stay
.

B
OOKS FOR
C
HILDREN
The Tree That Came to Stay
Happily Ever After

A Ballantine Books Trade Paperback Edition

Copyright © 1998 by Anna Quindlen

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

Ballantine and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint previously published material:

Christopher Franceschelli for permission to reprint an excerpt from his Letter to the Editor of
The Horn Book
, August/September 1997. Used by permission of the author.

Katherine Paterson for permission to reprint excerpts from her lecture given at the New York Public Library in 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Katherine Paterson. Used by permission of the author.

www.ballantinebooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Quindlen, Anna.
How reading changed my life / Anna Quindlen.—1st ed.
p.   cm — (The library of contemporary thought)
eISBN: 978-0-307-76352-5
1. Quindlen, Anna—Books and reading.   2. Women authors, American—
20th century—Biography.   3. Books and reading—
United States—History—20th century. I. Title. II. Series: Library
of contemporary thought (Ballantine Publishing Group)
PS3567.U336Z468   1998
813′.54—dc21

[B]   98-30191

v3.1

Contents

Cover

Other Books by This Author

Title Page

Copyright

Epigraph

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Books, books, books!

I had found the secret of a garret-room

Piled high with cases in my father’s name,

Piled high, packed large,—where, creeping in and out

Among the giant fossils of my past,

Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs

Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there

At this or that box, pulling through the gap,

In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,

The first book first. And how I felt it beat

Under my pillow, in the morning’s dark,

An hour before the sun would let me read!

My books!


ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING,
AURORA LEIGH

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book. The book exists for us perchance which will explain our miracles and reveal new ones
.

—HENRY DAVID THOREAU

T
HE STORIES ABOUT
my childhood, the ones that stuck, that got told and retold at dinner tables, to dates as I sat by red-faced, to my own children by my father later on, are stories of running away. Some are stories of events I can’t remember, that I see and feel only in the retelling: the toddler who wandered down the street while her mother was occupied with yet another baby and was driven home by the police; the little girl who was seen by a neighbor ambling down the alley a block north of her family’s home; the child who appeared on her grandparents’ doorstep and wasn’t quite sure whether anyone knew she’d come so far on her own.

Other times I remember myself. I remember taking the elevated train to downtown Philadelphia because, like Everest, it was there, aspired urban Oz so other from the quiet flat streets of the suburbs where we lived. I remember riding my bicycle for miles to the neighborhood where my aunt and uncle lived, a narrow avenue of brick row houses with long boxcar backyards. I remember going to the airport with my parents when I was thirteen and reading the destinations board, seeing all the places I could go: San Juan, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, London. I remember loving motels; the cheap heavy silverware on airplanes; the smell of plastic, disinfectant, and mildew on the old Greyhound buses. I remember watching trains click by, a blur of grey and the diamond glitter of sunshine on glass, and wishing I was aboard.

The odd thing about all this is that I had a lovely childhood in a lovely place. This is the way I remember it; this is the way it was. The neighborhood where I grew up was the sort of place in which people dream of raising children—pretty, privileged but not rich, a small but satisfying spread of center-hall colonials, old roses, rhododendrons, and quiet roads. We walked to school, wandered wild in the summer, knew everyone and all their brothers and sisters, too. Some of the people I went to school with, who I sat next to in sixth and seventh grade, still live there, one or two in the houses that their parents once owned.

Not long ago, when I was in town on business, I determined to test my memories against the reality and drove to my old block, my old school, the homes of my closest friends, sure that I had inflated it all in my mind. But the houses were no smaller, the flowers no less bright. It was as fine as I had remembered—maybe more so, now when so much of the rest of the world has come to seem dingy and diminished.

Yet there was always in me, even when I was very small, the sense that I ought to be somewhere else. And wander I did, although, in my everyday life, I had nowhere to go and no imaginable reason on earth why I should want to leave. The buses took to the interstate without me; the trains sped by. So I wandered the world through books. I went to Victorian England in the pages of
Middlemarch
and
A Little Princess
, and to Saint Petersburg before the fall of the tsar with
Anna Karenina
. I went to Tara, and Manderley, and Thornfield Hall, all those great houses, with their high ceilings and high drama, as I read
Gone with the Wind, Rebecca
, and
Jane Eyre
.

When I was in eighth grade I took a scholarship test for a convent school, and the essay question began with a quotation: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” Later, over a stiff and awkward lunch of tuna-fish salad, some of the other girls at my table were perplexed by the
source of the quotation and what it meant, and I was certain, at that moment, weeks before my parents got the letter from the nuns, that the scholarship was mine. How many times had I gone up the steps to the guillotine with Sydney Carton as he went to that far, far better rest at the end of
A Tale of Two Cities?

Like so many of the other books I read, it never seemed to me like a book, but like a place I had lived in, had visited and would visit again, just as all the people in them, every blessed one—Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Jay Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara, Dill and Scout, Miss Marple, and Hercule Poirot—were more real than the real people I knew. My home was in that pleasant place outside Philadelphia, but I really lived somewhere else. I lived within the covers of books and those books were more real to me than any other thing in my life. One poem committed to memory in grade school survives in my mind. It is by Emily Dickinson: “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away / Nor any coursers like a Page / Of prancing Poetry.”

Perhaps only a truly discontented child can become as seduced by books as I was. Perhaps restlessness is a necessary corollary of devoted literacy. There was a club chair in our house, a big one, with curled arms and a square ottoman; it sat in one corner of the living room, catty-corner to the fireplace,
with a barrel table next to it. In my mind I am always sprawled in it, reading with my skinny, scabby legs slung over one of its arms. “It’s a beautiful day,” my mother is saying; she said that always, often, autumn, spring, even when there was a fresh snowfall. “All your friends are outside.” It was true; they always were. Sometimes I went out with them, coaxed into the street, out into the fields, down by the creek, by the lure of what I knew intuitively was normal childhood, by the promise of being what I knew instinctively was a normal child, one who lived, raucous, in the world.

I have clear memories of that sort of life, of lifting the rocks in the creek that trickled through Naylor’s Run to search for crayfish, of laying pennies on the tracks of the trolley and running to fetch them, flattened, when the trolley had passed. But at base it was never any good. The best part of me was always at home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life. That was where the real people were, the trees that moved in the wind, the still, dark waters. I won a bookmark in a spelling bee during that time with these words of Montaigne upon it in gold: “When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to me to be alive and talking to me.” I found that bookmark not long
ago, at the bottom of a box, when my father was moving.

In the years since those days in that club chair I have learned that I was not alone in this, although at the time I surely was, the only child I knew, or my parents knew, or my friends knew, who preferred reading to playing kick-the-can or ice-skating or just sitting on the curb breaking sticks and scuffing up dirt with a sneaker in summer. In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the “shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments, I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. One of my favorite childhood books,
A Wrinkle in Time
, described that evil, that wrong, existing in a different dimension from our own. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.

Years later I would come to discover, as Robinson Crusoe did when he found Man Friday, that I
was not alone in that world or on that island. I would discover (through reading, naturally) that while I was sprawled, legs akimbo, in that chair with a book, Jamaica Kincaid was sitting in the glare of the Caribbean sun in Antigua reading in that same way that I did, as though she was starving and the book was bread. When she was grown-up, writing books herself, winning awards for her work, she talked in one of her memoirs of ignoring her little brother when she was supposed to be looking after him: “I liked reading a book much more than I liked looking after him (and even now I like reading a book more than I like looking after my own children …).”

BOOK: How Reading Changed My Life
2.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Glorious One-Pot Meals by Elizabeth Yarnell
My Name Is Memory by Ann Brashares
Dredd VS Death by Gordon Rennie
Servants of the Map by Andrea Barrett
Into the Storm by Dennis N.t. Perkins
Voices of the Dead by Peter Leonard