Monday, July 31, 2006

Militant Reading

image from

I wish I had the words to describe the pleasure I am getting from my reading lately. I’m falling on my books with a single minded passion, wanting only to devour them faster and faster. I am reading while walking Madam in the stroller (as long as I can stay away from traffic), reading while I nurse her, reading while she crawls around the floor and babbles. I can’t seem to make myself do anything else during my free time. My boxes remain unpacked. My errands remain un-run.

TEG calls it militant reading.

I suppose part of it is sheer relief, and ego. Sheer relief that the molasses of those early months of motherhood is finally thinning and loosening its hold on my mind, and I can concentrate again. In those months, I was so sleep deprived and depressed that I think I would have broken down in tears if you had shown me a book. Now, the mist has lifted. I can think, and let me tell you, it’s like getting my sight back, or my sense of taste. I missed living in my own mind.

The darker side of that is ego. I have, shall we say, issues about being seen as "only a stay at home mother." Why should people presume that I don’t have a wit in my head because I spend most of my day fishing things out of Madam’s mouth and singing "Wheels on the Bus"? So it’s very important to prove, if only to myself, that I am still the smart, interesting person that I was prior to giving birth.

But (you knew there was a but, didn’t you...?) there’s a deeper reason than those.

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the act of reading. Books have always been the mirror that reflected me to me. I have spent years losing myself again and again in the troubled and exciting lives of characters in novels. I have spent years following the triumphant march of Fact in nonfiction. When I was younger, I read indiscriminately, voraciously...anything that looked interesting, or that was recommended or mentioned by someone or something else that snared my imagination.

It was a happy time.

Then I started college, and reading became fraught with issues of self-esteem and fear and judgment. As an English major, I was expected to have some sort of an innate love for the "classics" and a disdain for "trash". Sometimes that was true, but often I had to pretend. For the first time, I treated books as being outside of me, objects to be dissected and mastered, instead of entered into and loved. Reading also became political. Apparently, I should stop loving those Dead White Males who had shaped much of my early literary experience, because they weren’t writing for people like me. This made me feel unmoored, dislocated.

Post college wasn’t much better. Working at Big Publishing Houses, books were currency, titles thrown around to show how educated you were, how fit to walk the hallowed hallways of the Mecca of Publishing. I felt incredibly behind, like I had wasted years reading books that were being deemed useless by the people around I had invested in a company that was declared bankrupt.

I spent those years lamenting the reading I hadn’t done. I spent those years afraid to tackle those Big Classic Books, afraid that they would expose me to myself (mirrors, again) and that I wouldn’t understand them, would have to face the fact that I was an intellectual fraud. I had a suspicion that the books would hold themselves aloof from me, that the authors "wouldn’t like me, if they knew me." Yes, that’s a direct quote. Poor TEG.

After I left publishing, I wandered around in underemployment and confusion. TEG and I moved on average once a year. I didn’t have a career, just a series of jobs. I had plenty of time and mental energy to read those books that had made me feel so inferior earlier, but, well...I STILL felt inferior. I still wasn’t ready. Not having a career made me feel naked in a room of people wearing suits. If I could have laminated my diploma and thesis and worn them around my neck, I probably would have done it. My mind was like walls closing, defensiveness and ignorance running around and around in the narrow space.

Then came Madam. And with her arrival, a flood of authorly desire was unleashed. I had spent years denying that I COULD be a writer, in part because of these books that hadn’t been a part of my education. But...I wasn’t in school anymore. If I was going to read them, it would have to be self-motivated. If I didn’t understand, I would have to dig deep and find the answers myself. And maybe they WOULD be too difficult for me to understand, maybe they WOULD be written in some code for genii. But something curious happened. Reading stopped being this badge of belonging that I could flash to the cognoscenti. It started to feel urgent, interior, almost secret. If I failed, no one needed to know. And hey, if I could give birth, surely I could pick up a novel by William Faulkner! So thanks to the wonderful library here, I started to tackle those fearsome authors. Woolf, Didion, Updike, Morrison, Walker.

And in my reading, I’ve found myself arguing with the authors, engaging them in my own life, pondering their secrets. I feel like I am learning to read like a writer, finally—like I am shaking hands with them across the span of the page, and the span of lifetimes. I can look past their mystique, the unassailable genius of their work, and see the effort, the humanity. Like my poem below, I am seeing them more and more as Letos, instead of almighty Zeuses giving birth from their heads.

And I am seeing that my own life, my own words, can grow and ripen and matter someday, as well. That I can plunge my hands into the messy, bloody chaos of language and image and fashion them into something beautiful, someday.

To put it simply, I am learning to read for mentors, to find encouraging voices for my own dreams. And every beautiful book I read, with phrases so heady and gorgeous they make me dizzy, is another hand up, another writer cheering me on and saying that they’ll see me on the other side.

It’s not militant reading. It’s my people, meeting me book by book.


Anonymous alyndabear said...

Great post, as usual - Having already seen your writing (and just from prompts, too) I already know how much I'll enjoy reading your work in the future as well.

I'm also an avid reader, I simply cannot stop myself from wasting my free time in a pile of novels. But I'm petrified of not being able to write; especially since I've wanted to do it since I was a girl.


3:25 AM, July 31, 2006  
Blogger paris parfait said...

This is a beautiful, insightful, powerful post! I never thought of relationships with books being quite so fraught, but I understand about not wanting to embrace some of the classics - and even some authors who are considered brilliant by the literati crowd. (I think some of them are awful).I love reading and have piles of books everywhere, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered. I'm so glad you're reading lots and writing more these days. We're all lucky to read your lovely words.

6:29 AM, July 31, 2006  
Blogger Ally Bean said...

"Books have always been the mirror that reflected me to me."

me too. and i never even realized it until i read your words.

6:39 AM, July 31, 2006  
Anonymous Marilyn said...

What a fabulous tribute to your love of reading. And so fabulously told and written. I have such a complicated relationship with reading. People who meet me in my middle years are usually surprised to learn that I didn't enjoy reading when I was younger...that I didn't really 'learn' how to read until I was 35. Until then I wasn't able to fully give myself over to a book. The best part of my relationship with reading today is that I do it to please no one but myself. I let go of the 'I should read so-and-so' voice years ago. It's true that books can be a wonderful mirror to one's self. They can also be a map through life, often unexpectedly. That's what I truly love...the unexpected messages and signs I stumble upon within those pages.

7:28 AM, July 31, 2006  
Blogger M said...

What a post! I want to know what you're reading now though!! I'm reading Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and loving it! I always have one or two books on the go at once, read every night before I go to bed, and keep a list of everything I've read- the good ones get a star next to them! I'm sure when I start having kids, that time will go straight out the window, so I'm sucking it up now while I can!!

11:19 AM, July 31, 2006  
Anonymous fern said...

I'm so happy you're able to escape into your books. I know how important reading is to you, and I'm glad you're able to enjoy it again.

I am in the process of teaching myself how to enjoy a book again. For the last couple of years I have been almost exclusively reading self help books because I thought that one of them would magically fix everything in my life. I've finally learned my lesson.

I'm enjoying some light fictional novels right now with hopes of approaching one the "classics" later this year...eek!

And thanks for two entries in two days. Yipee!

8:07 PM, July 31, 2006  
Blogger Jessie said...

books, sweet books!!! i can't wait to lose myself in them. for some reason i feel like i will be able to do that again now that i'm living in a different place. i also look forward to returning to language OUTSIDE the walls of academia.

i'm so glad you live here...for many reasons.

10:10 AM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger deirdre said...

Again you've put words to my thoughts and feelings. I haven't read enough of the classics and feel intimidated at the thought. At some point I began judging my reading list based on criteria other than pleasure and I want it to be fun again.

11:08 AM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger la vie en rose said...

this is a great post. i'm a book lover myself but i don't know that i've ever made myself really think about why i read, what it means for me to say i've read certain books. interesting topic...

4:57 PM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger Letha Sandison said...

This was so beautifully written!! You ARE a writer and I am so glad to see you embracing it. Believeing it!! You really are gifted.

It is awful how mean to ourselves we can be over not having a career outside the home and/or not going to an office. Taking care of madame and writing is such an amazing and valueable way to spend your time! I think it is amazing you get to do those things!!

I am glad the haze of new motherhood is lifting. I promised it would get better, see I didn't lie :)

I am so excited to see what wonderful things you write along the way.

6:47 PM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger alan said...

Good post. I saw quite a few points of syncronicty with my wife whose as a stay at home mom has retained her sanity through reading. I think it is such a solitary activity, something purely for yourslef and yet connects with people.

I have spent much of my life writing poems but now am embarking on the a novel. When I read now I am trying to understand how a writer crafted the plot, I can see how characters can spring onto the page and gain a life of their own but the intricacies of plots can defy me. I am making progress but it requires a lot of energy which as a father of a two year old is lacking.

Ok, a lot of that was rambling, basically I like the posts.

10:19 PM, August 01, 2006  
Blogger a m y said...

this is fabulous. i majored in english too, and was to embarrassed to admit that i HATE shakespeare and twain. and whitman, for the most part. but now, i am just falling in love with reading again...

11:05 PM, August 07, 2006  

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