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Countless Universes Await 'Real' Readers
Although I try not to live in the past, I’ve been blessed – cursed? – with the ability to remember almost every event of my life and connect past experiences to my present.
Many years ago, I wrote an essay, “Conversations with a Fellow Compulsive,” about the “bookie” talks that I had with my grandmother when I was a girl. Recently, that essay, Granny, a college class in the literature of the ‘60s and ‘70s that I took about 20 years ago and the death of a great writer followed by that of a dear friend come together in my mind.
Granny, my family and I were compulsive readers. “Real” readers, as Granny called them, know what I mean? We need to read, must read, cannot stop reading and will read cereal boxes if nothing else is available. Spouses who don’t understand that reading is like breathing to us become irritated. Fortunately, Bill is tolerant of my habit of having my nose buried in a book.
My mother’s fondest childhood memories were of Granny reading to her and her brothers. Granny never forgot a thing that she had read. After losing her sight, she had to resort to talking books which she said was not as satisfactory as holding a good thick book in her hands.
I’d find her with her head cocked towards the record player as she listened intently while keeping up an energetic commentary: “Damn-it-all-anyway! They know I despise Grace Livingston Hill’s pap! Why can’t they send good stuff like Dickens … Have you read David Copperfield? You haven’t? You get yourself down to the library today. You’re in for a treat; you’ll love the story of Aunt Betsy and the donkeys.” And thus would begin one of our chats.
The first book that I read on my own was the Wonderful Wizard of Oz when I was a second grader. That book started me off on a lifetime of reading just as the Harry Potter books have set fire to the imaginations of a new generation of readers. I had a gooseneck lamp that I stuck under the covers so that my parents wouldn’t know that I was reading way past my bedtime. Sixty years later, I remember how proud I was when I got my very own library number – 1369 – that permitted me to check out books from that holy of holies, the Knightstown Library. When I went there a few years ago, I was amazed (and dismayed) to see how little it had changed.
Readers live in a double realm where we are rarely bored or lonely. There’s the physical world that our bodies inhabit, and an interior, imaginary world peopled by great writers. Granny said, “You know, that Hemingway fellow – have you read For Whom the Bell Tolls? – doesn’t know me and doesn’t care about me as a person, but he has to care about me as a reader. His writing and my reading make our worlds match up.”
Real readers take a deep pleasure from talking books with each other. The leader of a book discussion group that I attend and his wife are kindred spirits. The first time that I met him, I assumed that he was a literature professor because he was so well read. Actually, he’s a businessman. He says, “Some men play golf; I read books.”
I have fond memories of walking along Carey Street with Ed Fort when we were on our way home from school. Ever more slowly we’d stroll, talking away until we reached my house at the corner of Carey and Franklin, where we’d stand for an hour. Even today when we meet, one of the first things that one of us says is, “Read any good books lately?” Other times Phyllis Hamilton – alas, now deceased - and I would stand at the corner of Carey and Jefferson until she turned to go home to the Methodist personage.
The best writers see better than we. The places that they create have as much reality as a wonderful painting. Disheveled, chain-smoking old Granny in her sagging house dress, cotton hose and run-over slippers shuffles along behind me through the landscapes of my internal vision: Conan Doyle’s Baker St.; Faulkner’s Yopnapatapha County with its bizarre inhabitants; the planet of Dune; Agatha Christie’s villages; Zola’s cabarets and coal mines; Dickens’ work houses; Hemingway’s Paris; Shakespeare’s gloomy castles; Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
Talented writers breathe life into their imaginary characters. The Santa Claus of Clement Clark Moore’s poem, for example, is more real than the saint upon whom he was based. Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Marmee of Little Women and her daughters, Macawber, Father Tim of the Milford chronicles, Sherlock Holmes and Watson, Old Scobie of the Alexandria Quartet, Macbeth and his lady all live within me. As long as other readers and I exist, so will they.
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