Sherri Winans
Whatcom Community College
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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 others?"

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 reading—in 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 story.

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 reading.

Grandma Hinshaw
Grandma Hinshaw reading Baron Brandy's Boots, by Peter Hughes
March 2001

 

Copyright 1999 Sherri Winans
All Rights Reserved

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Funded through the U.S. Dept. of Education, Title III Grant PO31A980143
Sherri Winans, Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA
1999-2015