Reading Books For Pleasure. Radical Idea!

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Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read. — Groucho Marx

Can you live a day — a week, a month, a year — without reading a book? Whether on a Kindle, borrowed from a friend or the library (i.e. depriving us authors of our desperately needed royalties), bought for 50 cents at a yard sale or thrift store, or, maybe, purchased at full price in hardcover, are you still reading books at all?

Gotta love the irony that the film (which, of course, began with a blog) “Julie and Julia” has now turned Julia Child’s cookbook into a best-seller. “This was a secret dream,” Nora Ephron, the film’s writer and director, recently told The New York Times, “that the movie would sell a lot of books. I’m completely delighted that people are walking out of the multiplex and into the bookstore.”

The Wall Street Journal recently ran this essay on why so many of us turned away from modernist novels — with all the allure of eating overcooked vegetables in their pitiless difficulty — and started reading fun stuff about vampires instead. The New York Times, in a front-page story this weekend, focused on a schoolteacher taking the radical (?) step of letting her students read what they prefer, albeit nudging some of them toward tougher and more challenging material, instead of the same-old “To Kill A Mockingbird” and its reading-list equivalents. I don’t have kids, but if they did, they’d have grown up as I did, in a home where every shelf is filled with books, from reference works on art, design and architecture to cookbooks, travel guides and fiction. A life without books is, for me, a life without oxygen.

I was an only child forbidden to watch much television, long before computers and video games were the norm. So I spent then, and still do, a tremendous amount of time reading books, often history, biography, fiction, memoir. Nothing makes me feel richer than a carefully-selected stack of unread books awaiting my undivided attention. As a child I adored Gerald Durrell, (a British writer who often chronicled his wildly eccentric family that included his famous brother, writer Lawrence Durrell). Reading him made me desperately want to become a writer, specifically one with his ability to write descriptively and to make people howl with laughter.

I loved Ray Bradbury’s work then as well, and, when I was 12 at summer camp, wrote him a letter begging him to please keep writing. I sent it New York City, to Ballantine, then his publisher. Imagine my shock and delight when he wrote back within a week, on a postcard with his home address and signed in felt pen, assuring me he would indeed keep writing. That postcard remains one of my treasured possessions, along with two letters I received from John Cheever – also on his personal stationery and signed – thanking me for two fan letters. Writers were real people! Maybe I could be(come) one too. Books, and their authors, always felt, and feel real to me. (As someone whose latest book proposal is currently making the rounds, I’m hoping to produce another one.)

Recent books I’ve read and enjoyed include a biography of London’s “Bright Young People”, of the 1920s, a biography of Coco Chanel, a biography of Noel Coward, Roy Porter’s social history of 18th. century England, Pico Iyer’s “The Lady and the Monk”, (here’s an interview with him),  and Michael Lewis’ latest book, Home Game, a fun collection of essays about his kids. Some of my favorite fiction writers include Balzac, Hardy, Amy Bloom,  Lisa Moore (A Canadian writer from Newfoundland); my favorites in non-fiction make up an ever-growing long list, some of them named here. These include war memoirs like Anthony Loyd’s brutal, dark 2001 work, “My War Gone By, I Miss it So” and Michael Herr’s classic of Vietnam “Dispatches” to two searing, unforgettable memoirs of growing up white in Africa,  Alexandra Fuller’s “Don’t Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight”, Peter Godwin’s “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.”

What are you reading right now? What did you read as a child you loved best?

4 thoughts on “Reading Books For Pleasure. Radical Idea!

  1. politicalcustard

    a book related blog post! wonderful!

    my love affair with books started with a teacher who did allow her students to read what we liked… this must have been when i was about 7 years old. each week we wrote a book review on the book we’d read and slowly but surely we learned the all important skill of ‘discrimination’… what made a good book and what made a bad book. i shudder to think how many people were put off reading while at school being told to read this book or that. i think the education system has a lot to answer for in that respect, especially during a period when books were having to do battle with a TV. Thankfully my parents didn’t allow me to watch much tv and what i could watch was carefully managed. i couldn’t just indiscriminately turn it on and see what was on, i had to study the guide and choose what i wanted to watch out of what was on (4 channels in those days – i’m only 36 believe it or not!). since i left home i’ve never owned a tv but instead have had a longstanding love affair with books – they can transport you like no tv can, fire your imagination and greatly improve your own story-telling and writing skills.

    i’m a geek and a gadget fan but i will never buy a kindle, i love second-hand books, being surrounded by books at home, the smell of books, little notes in the front covers of old books concerning people i will never know.

    i’ve just finished reading The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter and the Snow Dog… wonderful! I’m certainly in a Doris Lessig phase at the moment and have read several of her books this year.

    Now I’ve switch onto something else, accidentally related to Lessig’s book above in that it’s about war – Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, which according to the blurb on the front cover promises to be the ‘best war novel ever to come out of the US’… we shall see!

    I’ll stop now… I can talk about books for ages!

    Thanks for a great blog post!

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    A fellow bibliophile. Yay! I know you’re out there.

    My sweetie bought me a Kindle for my last birthday and I feel like an utter ingrate. I almost never look at it and keep buying dead-trees books instead. My love for books, like yours, is a life-long infatuation. When I read a great writer I am torn with envy (and want to fling my computer into the Hudson knowing I’ll never match that level of skill), inspiration and awe. Yet, thanks to (a very cool site), knowing my book has been bought and read around the world is really satisfying.

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