I Had to Fight to Read


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It was summer, stinking hot in a small town and I was fifteen and bored. The town librarian had been giving me grief since I was eleven and in the sixth grade, when she issued her first decree that I wasn't "old enough" to check out what became the first of a long line of books I had to fight to read. It was also the first of many times when one or both of my parents trudged down to the library to insist equally firmly that she had no right to restrict my choices as I had their permission to read whatever I wanted.

 

The summer of my thirtieth year was especially difficult for this poor beleaguered woman. Her worst day came when I insisted on checking out all of Proust, every one of Thomas Wolfe's novels, and while I was at it, Joyce's Ulysses as well. After all, I reasoned, I had two weeks to keep these books and I was a fast reader.

 

So I took them home, to the old iron glider under the grape arbor, and I propped myself up on a bunch of pillows and dug in with the same glee most people reserve for hot fudge sundaes. I fanned the pages and decided to read Look Homeward, Angel first because I like the way all those words leapfrogged over each other on every single page. Wow! The exuberant rush and gush of all those words! The torrent was overwhelming, the words blurred, I was losing the meaning. I knew I had to slow the pace somehow before I would have to admit that the librarian was probably right and perhaps I really wasn't "old enough" to make sense of it.

 

And so I turned to Proust, finding relief within his exquisitely nuanced precision and pacing. My love of all things French was born with Proust, as I marveled at his privileged people and their luminous lives. Who were they really, I wondered, and was all of Paris like this, and if so, how soon could I get there? For the next two weeks, I cut back and forth between that unlikely duo, Wolfe and Proust, sweating from July's heat and the emotional impact of Brother Ben's death (best read when one is fifteen), then cooling off with the soothingly elegant rituals of Monsieur Swann and company.

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It was an effort to penetrate the worlds of their words and, needless to say, I renewed both authors for the rest of the summer until my father, worried that I was wearing out the pages and would have to buy new books for the library, surprised me with my own personal copies.

 

I already had my own personal Ulysses, my father's copy reluctantly given. To my unending embarrassment in later years, he never tired of describing the look of reverence on my face as I sat reading his cherished book, and how he knew he had found its worthy heir.

 

In the years since that thirtieth summer, I've often thought about how these three writers influenced me in such very different ways. Wolfe (whom I did not reread) inspired my family's joke, that I can't write "hello, how are you" in less than 500 words ("shades of Tom," is the key phrase they use to tell me to cut like crazy in my early drafts). Some famliy critics have praised my essays for the evocation of period, place, character, and social class. "Thank you, Marcel," I say silently in homage to Proust, happy that he led me to the joy of living in France and writing about its writers. And Joyce: what can I say in less than one of Molly Bloom's impassioned soliloquies? Only that I've never stopped reading Joyce, who led me to Irish literature in general, who let me to Samuel Beckett in particular, who led me to many happy days of contemplating the endless pleasure of the world of words.

 


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