The following is a narrative
essay I wrote along with my English 100 students in April 1996.
Why I Read
This past spring break while basking in the California sun with a
month-old copy of Harper's Magazine, I read an article I've been puzzling over ever
since. In it, author Arthur Krystal announces that he is "Closing the
Books"he has quit reading, fiction in particular, because he no longer has any
desire to do so. He implies that novels can't really teach him anything anymore, if indeed
they ever did: "It's easy enough to say that books are important, but what exactly
does this mean? Just how necessary are Proust, Henry James, Dante, Baudelaire,
Wordsworth? Has reading them truly affected the course of my life in anything but a
professional sense? Although a book may sometimes overwhelm the idealistic or easily
impressionable (Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther led to a spate of suicides
after its publication in 1774), does literature . . . really affect our dealings with
Now I have a Master's in literature, a job teaching composition, and
three books stacked beside my bed, two in my gym bag, and rows and piles scattered
throughout my small apartment. Reading has drastically altered my life, and I am in no way
one of "the idealistic or easily impressionable."
I began to get an inkling of what reading would mean to me on a cloudy
spring day in 1966. I was seven. My sisters and I were spending the afternoon at Grandma
Hinshaw's house, as we often did, and we were restless. I had practiced the piano (played
at least ten times each of the two songs I knew in John Thompson's Teaching Little
Fingers to Play), helped Grandma cut the fresh green beans for the evening meal, and
chased my youngest sister Tresa through the kitchen several times, when Grandma decided
the weather was good enough for my five-year-old sister Beckie and I to go outside to
play. We pulled on our sweaters, and ventured out.
After exploring the yard, jumping on the bumper of Grandpa's ancient
Buick that was partially buried in the backyard, and peeling some of the bark off the
trunk of the lordly elm tree, we settled on "house" as the game of the day.
Grandma reluctantly handed over one of her quilts, which we draped over the picnic table.
Inside, daylight filtered through the cracks in our walls; and dolls, tiny doll blankets
and bottles, plastic teacups, and Jack and Jill magazines littered our grass floor.
Beckie and I fought like husband and wife. Soon, Beckie announced that Tresa was more fun
to play with, and she retreated into the house. I was alone.
I cleaned house, then sat back against the criss-crossed legs of the
picnic table, opened a Jack and Jill magazine, and quietly, delightedly, read.
I remember that it started to rain lightly. I remember that Grandma
called to me to ask if I was "okay out there in the rain." I remember that she
let me stay out, even though her quilt was getting wet. I remember feeling that somehow,
she understood about the comforting privacy of an afternoon under a blanketed picnic table
reading Jack and Jill.
Since that time, I have often snuggled up in a small place and lost
myself in readingin my overstuffed reading chair, under my covers at night, in the
window seat in many an airplane, in a front-and-center theatre seat before many a movie.
Often enough, I still get that feeling I had in my little "house" that day long
ago, that magical, romantic feeling that happens when I am engrossed in, enchanted by, a
I cannot even imagine feeling about literature as Arthur Krystal does.
The act of reading has taught me how to treasure solitude, to value my own space and my
own mind, to create for myself a little world in which I am free to do as I please. The
novels, poems, plays, and essays I've read have revealed the world to me; my reading has
led me to get to know and to celebrate the virtues of "different folks," to
learn languages, to think critically, to write. My life is dramatically different than it
would have been had I not read. I cannot imagine quitting my lovely, romantic ritual of
Grandma Hinshaw reading Baron Brandy's Boots, by Peter Hughes