Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When I Was A Girl, I Could Read Two Books in a Day

Now that I'm a woman, all grow'd up, I wouldn't even think of it.

Is this a non sequitar? No, it's a continuation of a conversation going on over at Mad Madge World about our changing reading habits.

There was a time when I inhaled books. My delight was in going to Crown Books (remember them?) and buying $30 worth of paperbacks, which was at least six or seven books. When I got home, I wouldn't know which to read first. I don't do that anymore. For one, Crown Books is gone and $30 buys me a couple of trade paperbacks. For another, I'm just not into that kind of reading anymore. What kind of reading is that? Escapist.

When I was reading two novels in a day (DH Lawrence, if you don't mind), I was a miserable coot stuck in a cold flat in a country where I didn't want to be. So I read. To get out of that flat. Obviously if I was reading Lawrence, I wasn't as concerned with getting out of the country.

I think another reason I don't read so much anymore is that--sigh! I've read all the great ones. Okay, that's not true, but you can't have completed the course work and exams for a PhD in English Lit without knowing, and I do mean knowing, most of what the Western world considers great literature.

All that reading spoiled future literature for me in several ways. For one, I can't turn off the critical faculty that was honed in grad school. In some ways, I know too much--about the genre, the author, the culture that produced it. So I'm never reading just for plot and the writing has to be stunning for me to notice it.

With contemporary fiction, I am most often disappointed. I've just finished The Secret Life of Bees. Eh. A bit simple. Innocuous. Sweet. Etc etc etc. Thinking that, I'm wondering what was in the contemporary fiction that I read in my twenties and thirties that was so dynamic: ah, that was the second wave of women coming into their own as novelists. Didion, Jong, Drabble, Lessing: even the mediocre books had some breathtaking piece of wisdom for me. I was learning how to live, and the novels I read were my guidebooks. Now? I guess novels can't do that for me anymore. It's not that I think I'm done learning how to live, but that the majority of the books that I see today are guidebooks for a younger woman.

Therein, I think, lies the issue: it's a midlife thing. The coming of age story or the young wife battling for her independence--they just don't have relevance when you're in midlife. I don't want to know Jo March's story; I want to hear Aunt March's version.

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