When I was little girl, I used to spend whole afternoons perched in a tree in my overgrown backyard in Raleigh’s Cameron Park, reading books for hours while eating fresh tomato sandwiches on toast. I can still feel the sharp bite of toast in my mouth and the sting of tomato as I turned the pages, lost in my own private world. (That's me on the right in the photo, in my prime tree-climbing days, no doubt clutching some unsuitable paperback to my chest. No one was getting my book away from me.)
God knows there was no shortage of books for me to choose from, and little supervision over what I read. I read from the original first editions of the Mother West Wind books, plowed through every single one of the Wizard of Oz books, and got an early dose of detective fiction with the Boxcar Children and the Bobbsey Twins. But I was just as likely to be reading Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Nathanael West (clearly exhibiting a dark streak early!), or even Aldous Huxley and Sinclair Lewis. My grandfather had been a Chicago time study engineer in the meat packing business and so his shelves yielded Upton Sinclair as well as all three volumes of Shelby Foote's Civil War series. As I got older, I discovered Lady Chatterley's Lover and a massive medical guide to psychiatric disorders under my mother’s bed that kept me rapt for weeks. Later on, when my father became the book editor of the News and Observer, I had veritable mountains of books to choose from whenever I read. But I think one of my favorite reading experiences was methodically working my way through a huge pile of original Life magazines stacked in our living room that chronicled decades long past. I became a time traveler and still feel, deep inside me, as if I actually lived through those decades — such is the power of reading.
Later, as a real traveler barreling down the highways of the Northeast and Canada on camping trips with my family, I would sit in the boot of our station wagon, reading James Bond for hours until, bleary-eyed, I’d look up to see some massive mountain looming in the distance. As a result, I still believe, on some level, that every James Bond book takes place in Switzerland.
I took my love of reading to college, and can vividly remember reading Gone with the Wind on a hot summer day in the tiny bedroom of a trailer parked off a then-deserted Mason Farm Road outside of Chapel Hill. I was devouring the story so rapidly that one of my cats, after observing my eye movement in silent bewilderment, tried to pluck out an eyeball. It was dangerous business reading about Scarlet, but after surviving a corneal scratch, so obsessed was I that I actually read the cheesy sequel of the same name — an absorbing but ultimately unsatisfying experience that did nothing to deter me from tackling other huge tomes like James Michener‘s Hawaii. (“Is there no place on earth safe from James Michener?" — an unknown, and much funnier, book reviewer than I). The bigger the book, the better the book became my motto. Oh, for the days of a long attention span!
I was, of course, using reading as an escape. Those long afternoons in the crook of a tree were the only quiet times I had growing up in a house full of nine individuals, sometimes an equal amount of dogs, and more than enough drama. In college, books were an escape from all the decisions that awaited me about my life. Later, when I lived in New York for many years, books were a way to escape the city’s endless concrete and air of general disappointment that eventually gave me spiritual claustrophobia and sent me back to the South.
But somewhere along the way, in the midst of juggling two careers and raising a child, I lost the ability to sit and read for extended periods of time. The advent of social media did not help. Like everyone else, I was fascinated with this new online world and wasted hours of my life talking to strangers. When the instant high of the online scene faded, and the demands of the real world grew ever greater, I was left with a persistent tear in my soul that I could not quite pinpoint. I did not realize then that it was the lack of reading in my life. Thank God for my book club, if not for the past 15 years of needing to show up once a month having read the book, or at least part of it, I am not sure I would have read many books at all beyond those I was contractually obligated to review.
Then a lovely thing happened six months ago: I moved much closer to where I work and found myself with an extra hour a day to do with as I wished. Weary of computers, email, and instant messages, I was determined to spend that hour off-line. I began to reclaim even more lost hours, shut down the electronics, and spent more and more time reading. I discovered the joys of used bookstores and walked out with shopping bags full of everything from true crime to Proust. I started to read my books every Sunday morning in companionable silence with my housemate, one of the few people I have ever known who can actually read the entire New York Times. Every session spent reading seemed to restore some lost part of myself. I began reading for an hour after work each day in my side yard, enjoying the green among the green (as Graham Greene himself would say). Little by little, I reclaimed my reading time and reclaimed myself along the way. Now, without apology, at least once a day, I do not return messages, I ignore Facebook posts, and I let the e-mails sit as I take a book and withdraw to my solitary pleasure and let the calm of being lost in a private world wash over me. I am grateful to have found this peace — and I feel myself becoming whole again in some mysterious way.
It is nearly impossible to find privacy in this world we live in. There are always noises coming at you, messages pinging, phones ringing, images moving, and people bombarding you with ways to spend your money. Reading remains one of the very few solitary pleasures left and I am grateful I have re-discovered it.
If you, too, feel the world is too much with us these days, I highly recommend that you return to reading as well. I don’t think it matters what you choose. What matters is that you give yourself the time to sit, insulated from the madness around you, lost in the world of your pages, just you and your book, and an engaged imagination, and a soul that is grateful for the rest.