In which the editor of Book World reveals her long addiction to the delights and delirium of reading, from The Wind in the Willows to Yeats's poetry to a six-week binge on anything set in the land of Oz.
As editor of The Washington Post's Book World, I recently asked 10 well-known authors to write about books that had changed their lives. Their choices were sometimes odd, always interesting: Susan Sontag on travel writer Richard Halliburton's Book of Marvels, Frank McCourt on Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, Kitty Kelley on Huckleberry Finn. They set me to looking for comparable epiphanies in my own bookish life -- in vain. I was forced to an embarrassing conclusion: The book that changed my life was The Bobbsey Twins in the Country.
Or perhaps it was The Bobbsey Twins at the Seashore or one of the dozens of other titles in the series. In any event, it was the first book I read all by myself. Not an auspicious choice for a future book reviewer, this early 20th-century series was hopelessly pallid, white-bread bland, casually racist. But the point is not perspicacity but precocity: I was barely 4 and I had taught myself to read.
So family legend has it. I have no memory of this feat of autodidacticism, though I do retain an image of a small, presumably pre-school me sitting on the floor by a book shelf in my grandmother's living room, reading one of the 50 or so trademarked adventures attributed to one Laura Lee Hope and starring "dimpled" Flossie and Freddie (age 4) and "handsome" Nan and Bert (age 8).
By the time I started school, I had left the Bobbseys behind and moved on to Nancy Drew mysteries. I was certainly ahead of the school primers featuring the monosyllabic exploits of Dick and Jane and Spot. But I read them too -- and repeatedly.
Thus a pattern was set early on: I would read anything in preference to nothing, and I would read in preference to doing almost anything else.
I have no idea how I taught myself to read. But my learning surely had something to do with the many hours I had been read to by my mother and grandmother -- from The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Rabbit Hill, The Just so Stories and all 13 titles in the original "Oz" series. Those hours -- which did not cease when I started reading myself -- were immensely pleasurable. They also bestowed an adult imprimatur on imaginative lite-
rature that, decades later, made the prospect of "reading for a living" as the editor of a book review section seem respectable as well as entertaining.
But the kind of reader I have become is not really respectable. Yes, I passionately love certain books: those mentioned in the preceding paragraph, as well as the collected poems of Yeats and Larkin; Emma and Pride and Prejudice; the "Lucia" novels of E.F. Benson; Kipling's Kim; anything by Angela Thirkell or Rex Stout; and almost anything by Graham Greene or Charles Dickens. I can read these books again and again. Nevertheless, I am less a bibliophile than I am a reading junkie, someone for whom the very act of reading has became an addiction, the printed word a drug.
My early experiments with the drug were rapturous, transcendent, at once escape and discovery. "Each book was a world unto itself, and in it I took refuge," writes Alberto Manguel of his childhood reading in his charming History of Reading. At 8 or 10 or 13 or 15, I was, like Manguel, capable of total absorption in a book; no reading experiences since have ever been so sweet.
My youthful reading was extensive and eclectic. In a house full of books I was allowed free range, with some curious results. The triumphs of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse, alternated in my favor with the courtroom antics of Perry Mason; the death-defying exploits of the Prisoner of Zenda with those of Mary Poppins.
The only book I can recall being forbidden is Gone With the Wind. "Wait until you're 12," said my mother. I didn't.
The first poem I learned by heart (and the only one I can really recall today) was John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields," a lament for the dead of World War I that ends with this mysterious peroration (what could it have meant to me?):
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
I first encountered the poem in a battered 1942 anthology called A Treasury of the Familiar, a magpie collection ranging from the biblical account of Creation to "The Cremation of Sam McGee." The compiler was one Ralph L. Woods. Most likely another reading junkie.
These days, though I can usually be found with my nose in a book or other printed matter, rarely am I lost in it. More often I am nodding off -- succumbing yet again to drowsiness, the most common side-effect of reading among aging addicts. "La chair est triste, helas, et j'ai lu tous les livres" (Flesh is sad, alas, and I've read all the books, complained the poet Mallarme. How did he manage to stay awake that long?)
It can be reassuring to compare notes with fellow addicts. But like AA meetings such discussions usually degenerate into competitive horror stories:
"There I was on the Delta shuttle with nothing to read and no airline magazine in the pocket . . . "
"Oh yeah, what about the safety instructions? At least you had the safety instructions . . . There was nothing at all to read on the subway yesterday."
The true addict cannot eat breakfast, fall asleep, ride a subway or go to the bathroom without a supply of reading material, even if it's printed on a shampoo bottle or a cereal box.
Manguel quotes Charles Lamb: "When I'm not walking, I am reading. I cannot sit and think. Books think for me." Perhaps the darkest side-effect of addiction is this jittery inability to just sit and think.
The brightest benefit is the escape that reading can offer from a darkness within. It's a matter of finding the right drug. At a time of marital crisis many years ago, I was quite unable to continue reading the biography of Queen Victoria I was halfway through. Too real, I guess. Even that most buttoned-up of monarchs had emotions to which I, in my over-sensitized state, resonated.
But Glinda the Good and Princess Ozma were made of different stuff. For the next six weeks, the only books I could read, the only ones that could distract me from my banal woes, were set in the Land of Oz.
Nina King is editor of Book World. This essay appears in the anthology "A Passion for Books."
(Copyright Dale Salwak from "A Passion for Books."
Reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, Inc. )