A few Sundays ago, my son spent three hours clearing out and rearranging his book shelf so that he could prominently display his small collection of classics. He had To Kill A Mockingbird, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Animal Farm, a couple by John Steinbeck and some Cormac McCarthys, as well as The Great Gatsby andWar and Peace, which he bought after reading somewhere that it was the greatest book ever. (I told him Anna Karenina is better.)
Then he swiped some books from my shelf—Crime and Punishment, The Secret Agent and a collection of Fitzgerald short stories, among others. These are books I read a long time ago and loved—for the greatness of the writing and the way they pushed me to think in big, mind-bending ways about humanity, history, society, politics, love, courage, family, evil. I read the books in college or in graduate school or on vacations years ago. This was before I started to lose my attention span over the past few years, before reading anything longer than a magazine article started to become impossible.
The busy life as a working parent no doubt zapped some of my brain power. So does working in this go-go news industry with its 24/7 cycle and living in a wired society where everyone, including myself, is constantly e-mailing, Tweeting and Facebooking.
To actually slow down to read 300 or 400 pages of a really good novel?
A few weeks ago, I confessed to Patch writer Lou Fancher, who is interested in how technology changes how we live, that I had not completed a novel in maybe two years. I made a couple attempts, but I just couldn’t focus. I have a master’s degree in English, so at one point in my life I had the ability to read, concentrate, comprehend and think critically about some heavy-duty texts. But, I told her, it seems like I had lost that ability. The attention span of a gnat: that was me.
And then my son became excited about building his collection of books.
Before I go on, I realize I come across as a pretentious parent boasting about my seventh-grader’s interest in serious books. Guilty as charged.
I don’t know where this passion for books is coming from. His teachers know he is not Mr. Super High Achiever in class. I myself grew up watching lots of TV, not reading books. My husband was a big reader as a kid. Now, our son has this new hobby–or obsession. I’m telling you about it because it has changed the reading habits of our household and has brought me a very lovely gift for the holidays.
As the holidays loomed, my son presented us with his gift wish list. Last year, his list contained the names of X-box games; this year it was full of books. In fact, he was more excited about this year’s gift list than last year’s.
He had done his research, finding the Modern Library list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century and reading up on some of the authors. For example, he was eager to obtain a book, high on this list, that I had not heard of:Darkness at Noon.
“What’s that?” I asked. With his iPhone handy, he summoned up the information that the book, published in 1940, is set during the Stalinist purges and Moscow show trials of the 1930s. He had just finished Animal Farm so he was somewhat familiar with the dark side of communism and what a really bad guy Stalin was. He apparently was interested in reading more on the subject.
We found Darkness at Noon, by the Hungarian-born British novelist Arthur Koestler, during a special trip we made to City Lights book store in San Francisco last week. That was part of his Christmas present: to go shopping for books at City Lights in San Francisco. We forked over a chunk of change at what is probably the second most famous book store in the world (behind Shakespeare and Company in Paris). We came away with The Sound and the Fury, To the Lighthouse, andUlysses, among others. “Do you want to read Ulysses, Mom?”
Ulysses?!? I never wanted to tackle that monster, even back when I probably had more brain power than I do now. I have always heard that James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece is one of the toughest books to read, filled as it is with stream-of-consciousness prose and things like that. Isn’t it also long? At least withWar and Peace, you can skip over pages of those epic battle scenes and not feel like you’re missing out on important developments in the Andre/Natasha/Pierre love triangle and, of course, on Tolstoy’s big messages about history and the human condition.
Ulysses aside, I started to read books again last week. It helped that I was on vacation—and that I was avoiding Facebook, Twitter and, as much as possible, e-mail. But most of all, it helped having my persistent, excited kid prodding me to read what he wanted to read.
Because he talked so much about Animal Farm, he sparked my interest in re-reading 1984. (I now see examples of doublethink and other Orwellian abuses of language, propaganda and power everywhere.) I also read Darkness at Noon, an amazing, mind-bending book that is an excellent companion piece to 1984. It’s similarly dark and despairing, set in prison, and (spoiler alert) the likely outcome is the protagonist’s execution.
I also finally read The Bell Jar, which I probably should have done as a college co-ed. I mean, isn’t the The Bell Jar required reading for every educated American woman? So that we know that choosing a husband, kids and domestic bliss over a career will save us from falling over the edge?
During a three-day trip to Half Moon Bay, we scoured used book stores and spent more money and came away with some more Fitzgeralds, a couple books by E.M. Forster and The Brothers Karamazov.
As I said, I don’t think I’ll tackle Ulysses but I’m tempted to crack open theBrothers K. It’s on my own list of books I’ve always wanted to read. As a former crime writer, I always loved the way Dostoevsky dissects the psychology of humans who work at the edge of morality, ethics and the law.
I’m sure there are readers who might tsk-tsk about us wasting money on books. We should just check them out from the library, they would say. We, of course, have two fine libraries in Walnut Creek. Well, maybe we’ll check out the Library Foundation bookstore!
Other readers would say it’s just becoming more convenient to read on a Kindle, a Nook or an iPad. All the books we want are presumably available at the touch of our fingers. These people also would say we could buy books cheaper via e-readers and would not be contributing to the destruction of the trees needed to publish more hard-copy books.
I understand the pros of an e-reader. Maybe I’ll consider it in the future. But for me, there was something therapeutic about not picking up another electronic gadget while on vacation.
Also, what would happen to my son’s book shelf? If we had an e-reader, would we need his book shelf?
My son has absolutely no interest in the e-reader idea, which might be a little surprising, given that he loves searching around the web and watching videos on his iPhone. You’d think reading on an iPad would be a natural next step for him.
He shook his head at the idea. Like me, he was wondering what would happen to his book shelf.
Like some slightly pretentious collector of $1,000 bottles of boutique Cabernets, my son loves the idea of bringing people into his room to see his book shelf. He likes seeing the titles emblazoned on the spines. The other day, he pulled out a faded old copy Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past and announced that this old paperback copy is “old,” maybe some “first edition” and originally sold for $2.50.
Most of all, he wants to be able to loan them to us–so we’ll read them, too, and share in his excitement.
So far, he seems on track to actually read some of these books he is collecting–but we’ll see about Ulysses. Just yesterday, he was reporting every few hours on his progress through Joyce’s much more accessible A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At about 4 p.m., he came to me, tired, relieved, triumphant. “I just finished it!”
Meanwhile, thanks to my son, I feel like I’ve found a part of my brain and of myself that I thought I had lost. I can read books again. I also can look forward to reading books I always wanted to read. In this way, I have a bright and exciting future.
Most of all, I can look forward to having something to share with my son. Last night, he suggested we both read Heart of Darkness; it turns out we have two copies. “It’s only 100 pages, Mom!” And maybe, just maybe, one day he will get me to read Ulysses.