From the Archives: Reading for salvation, or the books I loved in 2017
A repost from my old blog from December 10, 2017
For much of my life I’ve had a funny relationship with the phrase “reading for pleasure.” I love books. Reading is pleasure, by definition. But the place reading has in my life has changed considerably over time. The space it occupies now is not what I would have expected when I was a kid just discovering what books were.
Humor me for a minute and I’ll explain what I mean.
I’ll get to the books I read this year eventually. I promise.
In high school, when the number of books I was assigned as homework started to surpass the number I was reading by choice was when “reading for pleasure” came to have a distinct meaning for me for the first time. College only magnified this. Having chosen English as my major, I was reading dozens of books per semester, rushing through many of them in a day or two. Loving a few here and there, but generally moving from one to another without thought to my emotional reaction to any of them. It’s not that reading wasn’t fun when it was homework. It’s that reading was usually followed by writing a 15-page critical analysis that took until 3 a.m.
Then, I graduated, grateful for having chosen English as my major but desperate for a break from fiction and especially the Western literary canon. For two years, I read but not often, mostly magazines and terrible fanfiction. I watched a lot of TV. I watched even more movies.
Then, I went to graduate school so I could be a journalist. Reading became something else altogether. It became my job. I loved being an editor. I loved how much knowledge and skill it requires of you. I loved how smart it made me feel. I loved correcting mistakes and making someone else’s work better. I really loved the look on their faces, the sigh of relief, when this happened. There’s really nothing in the world like the gratitude of a reporter saved from writing a correction. (There’s also no feeling in the world like having to write one yourself because you introduced an error into their copy. It happened to me once and I was miserable for a week. I’m miserable now, just thinking about it.)
So, yeah, getting paid to read means there is definitely such a thing as reading for pleasure. After grad school and for the five blessed years I was a newspaper journalist, I read all kinds of material for fun, usually very slowly, 6-7 books in a good year. I married a fellow reader and spent less time worrying about the classics I would never get to
Then, came my children.
I love them. I would never give them up for anything. But for a few years at the beginning, I could barely hold my eyes open at any given moment of the day. I read so little that sometimes I asked myself, “Why do I still have all these books in my house. I’m barely a reader.”
I read to my kids, of course. Lots of Dr. Seuss, Goodnight Moon many times over, Rafael Pombo. During my respective maternity leaves, I read each of them a few chapter books of children’s literature. They were infants then and still at my mercy when it came to reading selections. (This backfired once when I read my oldest Bridge to Terabithia. Need a good cry? Read the death of a fictional child in a book that you loved when you were a child yourself but that becomes something else altogether when you’re a parent tasked with keeping this tiny bundle alive but also with making her brave. Damn it, I’m crying again.)
There was pleasure in reading to my kids, but as fun as it can be for you, this kind of reading is for them, to form their magnificent yet still tiny brains into readers and thinkers. It’s akin to buying a carseat or teaching your kid how to ride a bike—something that will save them and that they will enjoy but that comes with a whole new set of parental worries.
Anyway, to make a long blog post longer, let me just get to the point.
At nearly forty years of age, I have figured out that the phrase “reading for pleasure” doesn’t get it quite right. Reading offers pleasure, sure, but so do a lot of things. What reading gives me that nothing else does is emotional and mental restoration. Salvation, if you will. The thing that sleep does for my physical well-being, reading does for my mental health. I didn’t quite get this when I was in my 20s, because back then my mind and my heart didn’t need saving all that much. I had steady jobs, no kids and presidents—Republicans and Democrats both—who didn’t make me fear for the end of democracy and its fundamental liberties. Turns out, I need books to survive.
In 2016, for example, I read 12 books. A good total. More than the previous three or four combined.
In 2017, I have read 27 and counting.
Trump and the rise of everything he has wrought in his destructive wake has me desperately reaching for the next book as soon as I finish the last. I’m not just looking for “pleasure.” Escape isn’t the right word either although some books have provided just that. I need salvation. I’m looking for the next crag in the rock as I pull myself up the mountain—or to keep myself from falling into the abyss, depending on the day. (Dramatic much? Well, yes. That’s me.) If I’m going to fight through the age of the alt-right, if I’m going to resist it with all my might, and if I’m going to keep being a good parent, wife, friend and person, through it all, I need books. I don’t need them to be good. I just need them to be there for me.
This year, these were:
Didn’t dislike exactly but . . . meh
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
Crazy Rich Asians
Saints for All Occasions
The Russia House
The Girl on the Train
Lois Lane: Double Down
Good Kings Bad Kings
Big Little Lies
Loved, or the books that saved 2017
A Gentleman in Moscow
What We Lose
Little Fires Everywhere
The Lone Range and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven