Saturday, September 12, 2009

The comfort of reading

It's been a rough couple of weeks. It seems like every year, there is more work to be done (or perhaps, I put more on myself that I need to do; I'm constantly updating the teaching, I strive to grade more closely and precisely, do more research, keep up with reading in my field...)

I get tired a lot.

And I get distressed a lot. One of my colleagues was bloviating politically yesterday. (Yesterday! September 11!) It was the kind of stuff that I tend to regard as both stupid and wrongheaded, the kind of "we need to regulate the American public for their own good...but of course people like me who Know Better can be exempt. Because we Know Better."

And you know, I come home just tired. Tired, and worn down, and kind of sick of people. I hear stuff on the news and it makes me kind of sick of people.

(I swear, some nights, the only human being I can tolerate on the teevee is Mike Rowe. Because he seems not to be an idiot. Oh, and Leroy Jethro Gibbs, except, of course, he's not real).

But anyway. I've been reading a lot. And more than that, craving reading.

I crave reading, periodically. Where the one thing I can think of that I want to do is to just get into bed, open up whatever book I have going on, and read.

I can feel myself, as I read, slipping between the lines of words. Disappearing from the here and now. Moving into a world that is quieter and, in many cases, calmer. Getting away from the loud people or the rude people or the people who always think they're right. It soothes me to read.

Even history. I realize that history in the happening is a big horrifying mess - I think about what I was thinking yesterday eight years ago and I wonder at how freaked out I got, how irrational some of the things I did were. But that's how it is - just as Britons writing in 1940 and 41 by and large believed that the Third Reich was going to invade them, and a lot of ordinary Britons (this Mass-Observation book I have) were deeply fearful and some even already were mourning the "British way of life" and speculating whether they'd be killed.) But when you read history, by and large, it's been ironed out. Things are explained. Patterns are visible. And I find that oddly comforting.

I like being able to see patterns. I think that's also why I like "stories" (narratives); I like to feel like this life is comprehensible and there is some underlying order to it after all.

I do not like chaos. I know I've talked about Madeline L'Engle's words on chaos and "cosmos" here before - in her worldview, great art looked into chaos and pulled out cosmos, it showed how there are patterns and (in her worldview and mine) we are connected to the Divine. But she also noted a distressing trend; that some people were trying to promote the chaos, that they were trying to drive wedges where bridges should be built, to deny that there is an order and a rightness and that doing the loving thing is preferable to doing the hateful thing...

So I like narratives. And I like good books of history. Because a well-written history is a narrative. (And I know: you can go all deconstructionist on me and claim that finding a pattern is bootless; that history really is a big mess, it's written by the winners or the White Men or the rich folk or whatever. And maybe that's true. But I don't necessarily read it for received truth; I read it because it makes me feel like the world is less chaotic).

I particularly love ancient history; the idea that there was a world here long before us, that there were people who lived so differently from how we do. I am curious about ancient Greece and Rome, in particular, and love to read about them.

Another genre I deeply, deeply love is mystery novels. In particular the Golden Age mysteries of the 30s and 40s. One thing these have in common (or at least most of the ones I've read) is that the person who did the wrong is ultimately figured out by the intelligence and persistence (and sometimes luck) of the detective, they are caught, they are brought to justice, and the world rights itself on its axis. That, while the murder committed cannot be undone, at least there is some sense that the person who did it won't be doing any more of them. And also, in most of the novels, the murder is explained - there is a reason why, it is not some random act, it is not some person with a knife or a gun or poison or a bomb who just is taking another human out for the sheer sake of killing; it is someone who has a terrible grudge, or who has been blackmailed, something, and while it's clear that what they did is VERY wrong, it is not random.

It's not chaos.

And I also like classic novels. The big, thick, multi-character things, with lots of subplots and digressions. Stuff like Dickens wrote, like Trollope wrote. Part of it is the promise that by and large, injustices are righted, "good" people get some kind of a reward, and people who do wrong face consequences.

I want to believe in a just world. Even if the one we live in is not very just sometimes. I want that reassurance that a just world carries with it.

And frankly, sometimes - especially in the earlier Trollope novels - there is really nothing all that BAD that happens. The biggest worry is that the female lead will make a good marriage match, or that the main male character will be able to keep his inheritance even though a blackguard cousin has shown up claiming HE is the one who deserves it.

And I enjoy entering the lives of the characters. I tend to read slowly - because most nights I'm tired when I finally get down to reading, and I may not read too many pages before I have to put the book aside and sleep. I never was a particularly fast reader.

(It feels almost shameful to admit that. Like my academic cred is lacking in that area. Like I'm not as smart as I claim to be. But it's true: I read pretty slowly. I can skim when I need to, but I don't like speed-reading books.)

It can take me six months - sometimes more - to complete one of the long Victorian novels. But I have to admit, I like that: I like the idea of carrying the characters around in my head for that long, thinking about them at odd moments, having quotations from them pop up in my brain. It makes me happy. It makes me feel less lonely. It makes me feel connected to things, somehow.

I find I have more intense "relationships" with the book characters I read about than with people on teevee. Even though I love Mike Rowe. And L.J. Gibbs and his colleagues. They still do not seem as real to me as Gervase Fen (my new mystery-novel interest) or to Pickwick and his fellows.

When I find an author I enjoy, I set out to read everything I can find that he or she wrote. (And I admit, I have been at times disappointed - some people do not cross genres well, or else they have one or two enjoyable books in them and the rest are not so good).

I live in a house that is slowly having the walls lined by stacked bookshelves. I acquire books more rapidly than I read them. I am quite sure I now own more books than I will read in what remains of my life (even if what I worry is a coming civil war occurs and I have to hole myself up in my house).

But I keep buying them. Books make me happy. All the possibility there! Almost any topic I could want to read on, is somewhere on a shelf. It's like my own personal messy incarnate Internet. An Internet made of papers and pasteboard and glossy covers.

Reading right now is one of my greatest comforts.

It has long been thus. I remember shortly after September 11, 2001 - I was still living in the horrible sad apartment I had here, the one where they wanted me to rent a storage unit because I had "too many books" (they were all on shelves, so I am still puzzled by that complaint). I had recently bought a set of the Borrowers books, in hardback, from a bookclub I used to belong to (I think it was called Bookspan? It was one of those that was an opt-in club rather than opt-out; you only had to buy a book every six months or so to stay a member).

I had loved The Borrowers as a child, and decided I wanted my own set of the books.

And I found that they were the only thing I could read right then. Everything else distressed me. Detective novels had people dying. History books featured wars and bad leaders and people doing evil things to each other. Novels, even my beloved Trollope, were too complex - too many people, too many plots for my brain to take in.

But the Borrowers - that worked. I could even forget what was going on in the outside world when I was immersed in the adventures of Pod, Homily, and Arietty. Even the "scary" adventures were okay - you knew they would ultimately survive and be all right, even if it meant they were living in a discarded shoe in the middle of a field somewhere.

(I suppose I should note, in case there is anyone who does not know them, The Borrowers were tiny people - a couple inches tall - who lived in people's houses and made their household items from lost/discarded/"borrowed" things - like hairpins and spools. I loved the whole idea of these tiny lives going on alongside the big grown-up lives, I loved the idea of them "borrowing" things to use in their houses - and how the grown-up people explained it as stuff getting "lost")

Of course, eventually things calmed down and I shifted back to other books. But I do hang on to a lot of children's books - some, like my Narnia set, that I've had since childhood; others, like the Borrowers and the 101 Dalmatians that I had originally borrowed from the library as a kid, but now have bought my own copies of.

And so I come home at night, to my books. To the books (multiple) that I am reading right now (I always have more than one book in progress at a time; usually a mystery, a history, and a novel). To the books that sit on the shelves, patiently waiting for me to choose them someday.

Books are my pets.

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