The bookshelf: writers and reading

Author: Kevin Charles Gibley '89M.A. '95Ph.D.

In the writing classroom, students and I frequently discuss ways to engage readers with what they write. When planning literature classes, I try to choose stories that will connect with student readers. This focus on readership may seem out of step in a world shaped daily by an increasingly digital means of communication. A popular view sees reading books as quaint — an isolated act rather than an engagement in the matrix of the computer age. This view, though, neglects the connection between writer and reader, what Eudora Welty calls “a double act through which [writer and reader] make sense to each other.”

Book lovers realize that reading can be simultaneously individual and communal, personal and social. As some technology experts predict that books will become outmoded artifacts, there has been a curious byproduct: an array of memoirs about reading. These books investigate the passion for and the power of reading as they provide engaging biographical disclosures of famous writers.

The Most Wonderful Books: Writers on Discovering the Pleasures of Reading, edited by Michael Dorris and Emilie Buchwald (Milkweed Editions, 1997), presents compelling evidence that reading shapes an individual’s life and understanding of the world. In examining how they “first encountered the magic of the printed word,” a diverse array of writers offers tantalizing glimpses of themselves as children, reading and thereby stepping “into the great swirl of humanity,” editor Dorris writes.

In Ruined By Reading: A Life in Books (Beacon Press, 1996), Lynne Sharon Schwartz offers more than a glimpse of her reading life. As she notes, “the story of the book” exists within “the story of [my] life.” Consequently — and compellingly — her reflection offers not only detailed appraisals of significant titles from her life, but frequent meditations on issues as diverse as family relationships, women’s life choices and even her own brief flirtation with the attractions of baseball. Ultimately, her life is the textured proof of how reading — presented as an individual, solitary act — helped one reader make her life her own.

In How Reading Changed My Life (Ballantine 1998), Anna Quindlen echoes Schwartz’s conclusion. She strongly asserts (and supports) a claim that reading helps “build not a life but a self.” Additionally, Quindlen, in her distinctive, conversational prose, makes a convincing case for books as important tools for connection between society and culture, because engagement in “words and stories . . . lessen[s] human isolation.” The book closes with a delightful series of admittedly “arbitrary and capricious lists” to fuel further connections and reading.

Long before this recent spate of reading memoirs, Eudora Welty herself captured America’s attention with One Writer’s Beginnings (Warner, 1983). Welty recreates her home and life, a life in which she learned early on that any room “was there to be read in, or to be read to.” The book concentrates on her development as a writer, which began with her attraction to stories and her gaining “knowledge of the word.” This knowledge is the key that opens the door to discovering the world, leading to “an early form of participation in what goes on.”

Kevin Gibley is assistant director of the University Writing Program.