Bonding with Books

photo by ozyman on Flickr

Anna Wulick is a graduate student in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, specializing in 19th century British fiction. She is also the author of forty-two roads, a blog about crafts, art, and life. 


I have attended fifteen schools, I have lived in five countries, I speak two languages, but for as long as I can remember I have only had one passion.

 

Shortly after I turned eight, my family emigrated from the Soviet Union, following the well-worn route traveled by Russian Jewry at the end of the twentieth century. In my head, the six months we spent in Vienna will forever be colored by the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, which I read in my quickly developing English, and which eased my frustrations at making up my own plots for the German dubbed version of Adam West’s Batman.

 

After a year in an American school in Italy, I began a marathon of indiscriminate reading in the new language that would soon become my native tongue. Joyful at my emerging bilingualism, I was equally happy with Sweet Valley High and The Phantom Tollbooth, and thrilled when the kind school librarian guided me towards Judy Blume. As we leapt from city to city in the States, I grew indifferent to my constantly changing classmates. What was the point? I would no doubt soon be in a different school anyway. Books were my only constant, important for their faithful availability and the knowledge that each would remain familiar once I had read it.

 

In eighth grade, eager for something racy, I read D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (no doubt because of the reference in Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret). At first quickly skimming to get to the “good parts,” I suddenly flashed an analogy to the character triangle in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and was somewhat shocked that such a serious novel could reproduce the plot of a kid’s story – a girl caught between a crippled aristocrat and a hale, but lower class gardener. Not an original analysis, but by arriving at it by myself, I saw for the first time the true possibilities of literature.

 

I began to read not just for the fantasies offered by the plot, but for the connection the themes offered with the mind of another real life human – the author. Instead of just disappearing into the texts, I began to see the flow of human creativity: its inspirations, ordinariness, and self-reflections. I can still remember both the deeply comforting recognition of universality and at the same time the piercingly individualized kinship that I felt on reading William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy. Every page seemed written expressedly for me, like a long private letter trying to establish an unending relationship. How could it be? How could a grown man, writing more than thirty years before I was even born about a teenaged boy in small town halfway around the world, be able to so encapsulate my own inchoate emotions?

 

crumpartThat was an amazing, transformative, indelible experience. It is also rare, and I do not think has happened to me more than a handful of times afterwards. The connection itself changes – Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada evoked for me the pleasure of recognizing the way a fellow bilingual mind works with the constant multiplicity of linguistic possibilities; while in William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair I found a shared cynicism and sense of humor – and I continue to read – copiously, widely, hopefully – searching as ever for the kind of profound intellectual bond that can only exist between author and audience.

 

Moreover, I strongly encourage others to do the same. It does not particularly matter where you start reading, because eventually you stumble on a book that will draw your innermost thoughts into itself and send them back to you reshaped, novel, better. You will see your ideas interacting with those of another, and it will happen on your own time, in your own space.  There nothing quite like it – a relationship that has no preconditions, no social expectations, but only the need for an open mind and the desire to engage.

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5 thoughts on “Bonding with Books

  1. Thanks Anna for this inspiring post. Our relationship with good books is very much like a wonderful romance. You make that clear and engaging.

  2. I’m trying to think — what was the first book I read that talked back to me and I talked back to it — where that first conversation began? I’m glad you reminded me of The Secret Garden — I think that may be where the romance started. I was all the characters, the girl, the cripple, the gardener, and even the abandoned garden itself. They were all speakers in the conversation. I’ve gone back to it as an adult and, to my surprise, found the same companionship, again and again.

    I like the experiential engaging ring of your essay. Thank you.

  3. I’m pretty sure that every kid who read the Juster’ Phantom Tollbooth immediately fell in love with language. Remember the word market? What a great book!

    Sweet Valley High was popular when I was in elementary school, but in junior high (grades 7-9), juvenille horror authors R.L. Stein and Christopher Pike were all the rage. My peers of age 12-13 couldn’t get enough horror in their literary diets. I’m serious! EVERYONE was reading juvenille horror.

    Thanks for conjuring up some nice memories, Anna.

  4. Olga, your piece wakened warm memories of how I initially went to books just to be somewhere else than I actually was. That led to more, as I was gradually drawn in to the network we call culture. For me, culture meant stepping from a confining world to an infinitely expanding open. It gave me not merely a sense of the novelist’s mind, but it also allowed me at an early age to identify with fictional characters — For example, Christian in the Bounty series, the woodsmen of the Altshulter novels, and, in my mid-teens, Thomas Wolf’s Eugene Gant — the first representation of an artist figure I came upon.
    Dostoevsky’s Raskalnikov and Ivan Karamazov nursed my dark side, became part of MY story, as later the poetry of Wordsworth and Blake and Wallace Stevens led me to a new conception of poetry. Tolstoy I didn’t fully discover until I was an old man, and the scope of his humanity, ranging from obsessive temper and bad habits to something like true saintliness was a feast. After I’d read Troyat’s biography, I realized that it’s nearly impossible to separate Tolstoy the writer from Tolstoy the man.
    I could go on and on about examples, but the gist is that the reader constructs his story as much from reading as from first-hand experience, allowing us all to be much larger than we could have been without it.

  5. Another reading Anna here. I enjoyed your post. Childhood readers may appreciate “The Child That Books Built” by Francis Spufford.

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