Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books
By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Beacon Press, $18
As a precocious and retiring 4-year-old, the author tells us, she began reading anything she could lay her hands on. Soon she was immersed in the quirky hodgepodge of titles lining the shelves in her parents' Brooklyn apartment. From the hypnotic, dark cadences of Poe's "Annabel Lee" to the redemptive clarity of Heidi, she was hooked for life.
Within a few years, she had forged ahead to Dickens and beyond. "It was," she recalls fondly, "an age of sets," when the "Harvard Classics in black leather and gold trim" offered reason enough to while away an afternoon. She soon discovered the transporting power of Volume 17, containing the complete Grimm and Andersen fairy tales: "They tasted bitter and pungent, like curries."
An enterprising young reader, she remembers, also could glean more practical life instruction from the printed page. Good Housekeeping's monthly column, "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" was avidly followed in many a 1950s household, including her own. The advantages of self-assertion seemed clear: "I had little use for forbearance. I liked a good fight, and . . . wanted the harassed wife to throw her interfering mother-in-law out of the house."
Schwartz's account of her career as a compulsive reader, however absorbing, offers a great deal more than nostalgic reprise. We have, as any number of statistics will confirm, become increasingly a nation of nonreaders, seduced by television and film and the relentless preoccupations of everyday life. The central question she poses is profound and compelling: "Without the voices of my youth, my ghostly familiars," she asks, "how could I have become myself?" The books devoured as a child and adolescent, she reminds us, are formative, touchstones and guides that may endure for a lifetime.
For Schwartz, the special title "that told me more about who I was than anything before or since" was Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess: "I still return to it," she admits, "every few years." Before happening on that novel, Schwartz writes, "I had suspected that the life within was every bit as real as the life without, but no one had ever before reassured me. Sara Crewe, heroic in her rags, demonstrated the fortitude and patience needed until my inner vision could find its way into the actual world."
Schwartz, who grew up, not surprisingly, to be a novelist, makes no apologies for a life "ruined by reading" and spent lolling around in armchairs with a beckoning volume. Her excursion, part memoir, part meditation on writers from Erle Stanley Gardner (Perry Mason's creator) to Sophocles, is a call to arms: Couch potatoes, you have only your remote controls to lose. Before you know it, you may find yourself hopelessly addicted, reading War and Peace, A Girl of the Limberlost, or E. B. White's letters until 3 a.m. For the book, as Schwartz winningly counsels us, remains, even today, an extremely user-friendly technology.
Kathleen Burke is the Book Reviews editor at SMITHSONIAN.