Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Laughing, Crying, Having Stomach Aches and Existential Crises

Why do people read what they read?

I remember the first time I enjoyed reading a book. I was 7, and it was my first time reading a book that looked more like a grownup book than a little kid's book; it had more words than pictures, and it was smaller than the big hardback children's books. I have no idea what the title was or who wrote it, but it was about a large family that had to be very quiet; they tiptoed around in their socks and tried to blow their noses silently. The style was really goofy and funny, and it made me laugh.

I loved reading. I would spend a lot of my allowance on books, and I would also get library books. My father was a Virgina Tech alumnus, so he had a Va Tech library card. He'd drop me off at the big university library and I could wander around the long rows of books for an hour or two, and pick out anything I wanted.

I read all kinds of different things, from Nancy Drew to Laura Ingalls Wilder to Judy Blume to Norma Klein. I cried when I read Black Beauty. I loved Little Women (I cried when Beth died), and Jane Eyre (I cried when Jane had to leave Mr. Rochester, and again when they got back together). Okay, so I am a big weepy wuss, go ahead and laugh at me.

In my early teens I went through a horror phase, reading Rosemary's Baby, Carrie, and The Omen. I will tell you right now, there is not much that will make you more carsick than riding a school bus across a mountain while reading The Exorcist.

My parents didn't really censor anything I read, either, although they did try to keep an eye on it. When I was in my mid-teens I read Lolita (which did concern my mom, but she didn't stop me) and The Story of O (I feel sure she would have said something about THAT one had she known what it was, but I'm sure she'd never heard of it, and it had such a boring plain white cover I think it slipped right under her radar).

Books were such an important part of my life when I was growing up. Sometimes I felt like the characters were friends, and I'd re-read the same books to spend more time with them. Sometimes, particularly with the Judy Blume and Norma Klein books, I felt like I was studying the characters to learn how to behave. Norma Klein's teenage characters typically lived in Manhattan and went to art galleries and museums; they rode public transportation and used birth control and ordered foreign food in fancy restaurants. To a girl who lived in the mountains, miles and miles away from any museums or even from a freakin' sidewalk, they seemed very mature and impressive. I wanted to be like them.

As an adult, I still read a lot, although I am a little more pressed for time and I am pickier. I feel like my life is too short, and there are too many good books to waste time on a crappy/boring/badly written book, so I lost the misguided feeling of obligation to finish any book I start.

So why do I read? Some people say that reading for entertainment is escapism, not any different than watching sitcoms on tv. I can see the point about escapism, but I think your brain is working a bit harder if you are reading. Obviously you can learn a lot from reading, even from fiction books, but especially from biographies and autobiographies. I do sometimes read for the experience; reading about doing things that I can't (or at least, am not likely to) do, such as climb Mount Everest or be a vampire.

I believe that anything that's well written is worth reading.

This past weekend I read Push, by Sapphire. My husband read it last month, and told me it made his stomach hurt. I knew more or less what it was about, with the movie Precious being all award-winny recently. Even knowing the basic idea and bracing myself for the tragedy, I still had to stop reading several times to cry, and it brought about a minor existential episode.

Did I mention that I get way too intensely into the books I read? Oh, boy.

Which just makes it all the more strange (to some people at least) that I do sometimes read books that are disturbing/upsetting/sad. I don't understand books being censored, and am still really confused and offended at the hoopla around American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I've actually read it twice (although I do admit to skimming a couple of the really violent scenes the second time around) and I think it's brilliant. Although unpleasant, sure. There are things in my head now that would not have been there otherwise, I would never have thought of some of the terrible things that happen in that book.

I had a discussion with a friend once when I tried to talk him into reading one of my very favorite books: Shella by Andrew Vachss. He stopped reading after a few chapters, appalled at the violence and the sadness. But it's so well done, I said. It's just beautifully written, the style is so spare and clean. And the characters, while mostly damaged and troubled, are so clearly defined.

Why do you like to read what you read? What's the most upsetting book you have ever read, and are you sorry you read it?


  1. The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

  2. Ah ellen, what a great post. The only two books I can think of in answer to that "most disturbing" question are Damage by Josephine Hart (a little slip of a book but it stayed with me), and The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer, which I read every few years for some reason. I think I wanted to study again his style of creative nonfiction, which really did change journalism.

    Thanks for this meander down the literary pathways. I over here remembering books i have loved. What fun!

  3. Another thing about the book Damage, I think it had the most compelling first page I had ever read at the time I read it. I don't know if that's still true, but I remember being just startled by it's first page.

  4. Thanks, Angella. I have read The Executioner's Song, which was a wonderful book... I forgot about that one.

    I'm curious to go look up Damage.

    Greg, WHY was it disturbing??


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