Sometimes you need little filler books, something that can easily be carried around and pulled out on a bus, in a waiting room, or, in my case, over a lunch hour salad. I spent the last few days reading Trollope and, delightful as he is, he is not well suited for being carried around in a handbag or for being read in short bursts. How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen, an extended essay masquerading as a book, on the other hand, was perfect.
In four short essays, Quindlen tracks her lifelong progression as a reader. I love reading this sort of bookish memoir and though I doubt this one will stand out in my mind, it did make me like Quindlen far more than I had ever thought I would (after having read and disliked several of her other books). It is difficult not to feel some affection for a woman whose passion for reading so closely mirrors my own. I especially related to her memories of childhood, with parents who couldn’t understand why their child wanted – needed – to read so much. But to other readers it is the easiest thing on earth to understand:
Reading has always been my home, my sustenance, my great invincible companion. “Book love,” Trollope called it. “It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.” Yet of all the many things in which we recognize some universal comfort – God, sex, food, family, friends – reading seems to be the one in which the comfort is most undersung, at least publicly, although it was really all I thought of, or felt, when I was eating up book after book, running away from home while sitting in that chair, traveling around the world and yet never leaving the room. I did not read from a sense of superiority, or advancement, or even learning. I read because I loved it more than any other activity on earth.
I loved Quindlen’s shock when she discovered that there was a “right” way to read, or, more importantly, that there were “right” books and “wrong” books and that the middlebrow novels she was drawn to (Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga is singled out as one of her first great loves) were most assuredly, shamefully the wrong sort of reading material. Happily, she vocally rejects that sort of snobbish elitism throughout the book:
…there was a right way to read, and a wrong way, and the wrong way was worse than wrong – it was middlebrow, that code word for those who valued the enjoyable, the riveting, the moving, and the involving as well as the eternal.
Most of all, I envied Quindlen for having Mrs LoFurno in her life. Mrs LoFurno was a neighbour, a friend of Quindlen’s parents, who had a large and eclectic book collection that she invited her young neighbour to explore. This opened up not just a whole world of new books for Quindlen but a world where there were other passionate readers:
I was about ten when Mrs LoFurno began allowing me to borrow books from her basement, books without plastic covers, without cards in brown paper pockets in the back filled with the names of all the others who had read Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates before me. Many of her books were older books, with the particularly sweet dusty smell that old books have; they had bookplates in the front, some of them, sepia coloured, vaguely redolent to me of a different sort of world, a world of tea and fires in the fireplace and doilies on chair backs and, in some fashion, a world in which people read, read constantly, avidly, faithfully, in a way in which, in my world, only I did. It was both a world in which, I imagined, books would be treasured, honoured, even cosseted on special shelves, and a world that had formed its imaginary self in my mind from books themselves.
As for the collection of books she found in that basement, it sounds like the sort of thing I know some of my readers dream of and Quindlen attacked it with the wonderful energy and open-mindedness of a child who hasn’t yet learned to be snobbish in her reading:
In the language of literary criticism, which I have learned to speak, or at least mimic (and, covertly, to despise), it was uneven. There was Little Women and lots of Frances Hodgson Burnett and some treacly books for girls written between the world wars. There was A Girl of the Limberlost, which no one reads anymore, and there was Pride and Prejudice, which everyone should read at least once. The truth is that I cannot recall feeling that there was a great deal of difference between the two. I had no critical judgement at the time; I think children who have critical judgement are as dreadful and unnatural as dogs who wear coats.
How lucky any child would have been to have a Mrs LoFurno – and her basement – in his or her life!