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Ruined by Reading (thoughts)

February 11, 2008

What?  A book review?  Say it ain’t so!  Oh yes, dear readers.  I happen to have recently read a book about books, so it’s going to be an extra-special post to get this book blog back in track!  (I think I challenged the universe by being all self-congratulatory over daily blogging in January…this month it’s conspiring to keep me away, lol)  But before that, a couple brief responses to all the comments on my last post: thanks for all of the congratulations! 

I have a bunch of blogosphere stuff to catch up on, so if you’ve e-mailed me/given me a shout-out, I promise I haven’t forgotten about you.  And speaking of shout outs, this week Ravenous Reader has made my Monday!  She’s pretty new to blogging, but I love her cosy style (have you checked out her Sunday Salon posts? they’re so adorable) and wide-ranging reading.  She has a great mix of book-talk with life-talk as well, and I’ve enjoyed getting to ‘know’ her since the new year. Click on over!

And now, let’s talk a little about Ruined by Reading, a memoir-slash-manifesto by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. When I started this book, I had a feeling it was only going to get about two stars…Schwartz seemed to take herself-and her reading-so seriously it was laughable. But slowly, the mood shifted a little, and I became sucked in. This book is quite slim-only 128 pages-and it’s divided into any chapters, which contributes to it reading like a manifesto. Schwartz jumps from topic to topic, focusing on books and how they’ve connected with her throughout her life. The reader will learn about home ec classes, leprosy, Schwartz’ difficulty with electronics, as well as more traditional ‘book’ topics like abandoning a book, making TBR lists, and the magic of childhood favourites. By the end, I found myself wishing Schwartz would keep talking: the utter seriousness with which she approaches the topic had become endearing, if still a tiny bit odd. I’m going to share all of my favourite passages below, and that should help you decide whether or not her style is for you. :)

Favourite Passages
This is a far cry from my idealism at age twenty, when I longed to read everything, simply because it was written, like adventurers who climb Mount Everest because it is there. Other sensationalists must sample everything edible or try every feasible sexual posture, however slimy or arduous, repsectively. Thus do they assure themselves they have truly lived. No experience has passed them by, as if exhaustiveness were the measure of the good life.
Gradually I lost, or shed, the Mount Everest syndrome. Bookshelves still tease and tantalize, but like a woman with a divining rod, I know now where the water will be, I do not have to scrape earth and dig holes seeking, only there where the rod begins to tremble. (6)

I envied my older sister her uninterruptability. While I looked up immediately from my book when my name was called, she had the uncanny ability not to hear. I would test her as she read. It was like addressing a stone, except that with a stone, if we are imaginative enough, we can infer some kind of response albeit in stone language. My sister appeared to be present, but she was in the book. This is a great and useful gift. The stunned petitioner retreats, daunted by an invisible power that can drown out the world. (31) (This is how I read!)

Some readers may run their own private films as each page turns, but I seem to have only spotty fleeting images, a floaty gown, a sofa, a grand ballroom, or a patch of landscape. Language, that is, may lend itself to visual translation, but does not require it. It is its own universe of sound, rhythm, and connotation, which generate the occasional visual flare. (77) (This is also how I read!)

…I wanted them to share in the great discovery I was marveling at: that there was literary history, that the whole gorgeous landscape I had been flitting through at random, pausing here and there to sniff or taste or swallow, had an order, like a vast English garden. There were maps showing the paths and byways, replete with measurements and arrows, longitude and latitude, charts of the distances and relations between points. The college catalogue listed courses to choose from, to combine into patterns like the suggested tours in travel brochures. Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth Century. Elizabethans, Augustans, Romantics, Victorians…. (80)

Children generally read what they please, but addictive adults (writers especially) can get tangled in the toils of choice….At times the ramifications of choice verge on the metaphysical, the moral, even the absurd. To read the dead or the living, the famous or ignored, the kindred spirits or the bracingly unfamiliar? And how to go about it-systematically or at random? (95-6)

I can vacillate lengthily, and foolishly, over whether to read at random (as I did on my bed in the fading light) or in some programmed way (as we all did in school). I like to cling to the John Cage-ish principle that if randomness determines the universe it might as well determine my reading too; to impose ordr is to strain against the nature of things. Randomness continuing for long enough will yield its own pattern or allow a pattern to emerge organically, inscrutably, from within-or so I hope. On the other hand, how comforting to have a plan. It harks back to the satisfaction of pleasing authority and earning a gold star. With a few months’ effort, anyone can become an expert on Balzac or medieval epics or Roman comedies, and how reassuringly American, too, are expertise, thoroughness, inclusiveness-offshoots of manifest destiny, no doubt, the need to control the entire territory. (101)

The librarian taught us how to keep a chart of our reading. A narrow column for the date, a wide one for the title of the book, one for the author, and finally, one to note the pages read. It had not occurred to me that the number of pages, the rate, mattered. What could quantity have to do with reading? Yet from that moment there it was, sour and inescapable. In college we groaned ritually over long reading lists-how to get it all done? We calculated our speeds in different subjects (fifty pages an hour for a novel, thirty for history, twnety for philosophy) and parceled out our time. It is a blasphemous way ot read, like a Black Mass, mocking the act by denaturing it. (106)

Indeed what reading teaches, first and foremost, is how to sit still for long periods and confront time head-on. The dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forgot time and mortality along with all of life’s lesser woes, and simply bask in the ever-lasting present. (116)

Reading teaches us receptivity, Keat’s negative capability. It teaches us to receive, in stillness and attentiveness, a voice possessed temporarily, on loan. The speaker lends herself and we do the same, a mutual and ephemeral exchange, like love. Yet unlike love, reading is a pure activity. It will gain us nothing but enchantment of the heart. And as we grow accustomed to receiving books in stillness and attentiveness, so we can grow to receive the world, also possessed temporarily, also enchanting the heart. (118)

18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2008 1:08 am

    Those are incredible quotes! I was a “stone” reader more when I was younger…got me in trouble in school when I was reading novels behind my textbooks.
    I’ve been curious about this book since first hearing about it. Also her novel “Disturbances In The Field”. Congratulations again on your admission to graduate school. Now go and kick academic butt!

  2. February 12, 2008 4:35 am

    Wonderful passages to share, Eva! Oh, how I wish I could be a reader like her sister. Annie most certainly is, but I am the epitome of distractibility!

  3. February 12, 2008 11:17 am

    Great post! I, too, enjoyed those passages. Congrats on your next step in academia.

  4. February 12, 2008 11:32 am

    Also, pls check your link to Ravenous Reader – it’s sending me back to my own blog?!

  5. February 12, 2008 12:11 pm

    Great passages! Definitely a manifesto type concoction, but I think I like it!

    And SO FREAKIN’ COOL that you’ll be reading from Steinbeck’s hometown! Whee!

  6. February 12, 2008 12:37 pm

    Great quotes from the book. I especially liked where she was describing what she visualizes when she reads. I’ve noticed when I read that its really important for me to be able to picture what is being described. Its like I can’t understand it unless I see it in my mind.

    And again, congrats on grad school. What got you interested in that degree? (if that’s not too nosy!)

  7. February 12, 2008 1:57 pm

    Oooh, I’m a bit jealous of your new grad program! I did my Master’s in International Relations, very similar, and I still miss the research I did a little bit. How nerdy is that. :) I’m sure you will have a lot of fun in Monterey. If I recall, I think I even visited a Steinbeck wax museum when I was there!

    There are so many “books about books” out there, but you have piqued my interest with this one. I hadn’t heard of it before.

  8. February 12, 2008 2:10 pm

    Congratulations to your admission to the school. And you’ll be in the neck of my wood, well, sort of! :)

    Ruined by Reading sounds like a fun book to while away the weekend with, I’ve gotta check it out. Thanks.

  9. February 12, 2008 3:01 pm

    I know you’ve gotten the Make My Day award a million bajillion times, but I just had to give it to you, too –

  10. February 12, 2008 4:01 pm

    Great post–I’ve enjoyed Schwartz’s novels, so I should read Ruined by Reading–it sounds interesting! Congrats on the grad school, which sounds great. I also love Monterey, so I really hope you enjoy it there :)

  11. February 13, 2008 1:43 am

    Bybee, that got one of my friends in trouble too! I only read during down time, so fortunately I avoided that trouble (I was a bit of a goody two-shoes in school). I’ll try really hard to go kick academic butt! Little nervous about the higher level of grad school but excited too. :D

    Debi, the author was very distractable as well. The only thing that can distract me is obnoxius commericals: I can read during TV shows, but not during the breaks. Go figure.

    BKClubCare, I fixed the link. :) Glad you enjoyed the passages.

    Andi, hehe-I’m super excited about the Steinbeck thing too!! Glad I’m not the only one who thought it sounded like a manifesto. ;)

    Kim L, I’m the opposite-like Schwartz, I don’t really ‘see’ what I’m reading most of the time. But it is definitely occuring in my brain-it’s difficult to explain. As to what got me interested in the degree, I don’t think you’re nosy but it’s a long answer. Here goes: my senior year of high school, I became very interested in the US foreign service. So, in college I focused on international relations and Russian (an important government language) with a smidgen of French and Econ thrown in there for fun. :) My senior year (last year), I did a big research project on the reconstruction of Bosnia, and I realised I was super-interested in security issues. But, I don’t really want to go into a somewhat grey security job (like the CIA or as a civilian DoD worker). So, I started researching other options, and I figured nonproliferation was perfect-it helps everyone! Sorry about the lengthy reply, lol…this is basically an abstract of my application essay. ;)

    Alisia, where did you go? I’ve only been out of school a year, but I’m already missing it, so I don’t think you’re nerdy! And I’m a bit jealous of your career, so we’re even. :D

    Matthew, thanks! I’m so excited about experiencing the West coast-I love moving.

    Susan, aww-thanks so much!! And you didn’t need to give your blog address-I know who you are. :)

    Gentle Reader, I’ll have to look into her novels! I’ve never heard anything bad about Monterey (except for how expensive it is), so I’m sooo excited.

  12. February 13, 2008 1:54 am

    I love books about reading and will look out for this one! The quotes are great, quite academic in a way but very passionate, too.

  13. February 13, 2008 5:55 am

    Congratulations on your acceptance into the Masters program! That’s awesome — it sounds like you have wonderful plans.

  14. February 13, 2008 10:34 am

    Eva, that sounds like a totally cool program. It obviously fits what you are passionate in, which is really important! I have been thinking about going to grad school, but right now I’m enjoying non-college life.

  15. February 13, 2008 8:39 pm

    Eva, I’m so glad I made your Monday! My week has been so hectic, I can’t believe it took me until Wednesday to find out :)

    Thank you so much~I’m honored!

  16. February 13, 2008 10:30 pm

    LitLove, they are pretty academic-it was a neat change from some of the more casual books about books.

    Dorothy, thanks!

    Kim L, I agree-passion is important (especially w/ so many student loans, lol). What would you go to grad school for?

    Ravenous Reader, you’re welcome-I love reading your blog! And I understand about hectic weeks. :D

  17. February 14, 2008 3:09 am

    Hey, Eve! I tagged you for a non-fiction meme. C’mon over and give it a try.


  1. The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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