Column Editor: Thomas W. Leonhardt (Retired, Eugene, OR 97404)
Being of a certain age, I’ve taken to reading the local obituaries. I find myself interested less in what people did for a living than what they did for fun and relaxation, especially in retirement. The typical, often-occurring activities include, attending athletic events, golfing, traveling, camping, gardening, baking, and bowling. I’ll see almost everything imaginable but rarely do I see any reference to reading and none at all to books. And then that rare occurrence, interspersed among other activities — “She liked to read.” What better endorsement for a life well led! But is it?
Reading seems a simple skill learned so early in life that it may be taken for granted and not even thought of as a skill. But reading is more than a skill; it is a knowledge-foundation on which we build other skills. Language is the real foundation but books and journals — the written and printed word — is the permanent record of humankind’s accomplishments and wonderments. Fiction, too, plays an important a role in our well-being as a species. And reading is much more than this because it is such a personal pursuit that it can be a spiritual, mystical, transformative experience.
She liked to read? What does that mean? Read what? Reading matter comes in a myriad of forms — newspapers, magazines, political flyers, advertisements imposed on any and every available surface, cereal boxes, and even digitally produced words that appear on my computer screen. And books. When I think of reading, I think of books, so when I see, that is, read, that some recently deceased person liked to read, I become curious about what she liked to read. It doesn’t matter, some would say, and at one level (reading is better than vegetating before a flickering screen), it doesn’t, but I want to know more about the person’s intellectual interests that spurred the interest in reading.
If the obituary author is not a reader, then someone who reads only the daily newspaper would be a reader by comparison. My father, in that sense, was a reader back when morning and afternoon papers were delivered to our house (he subscribed to both). He did have a small collection of books that followed him wherever the Army sent him — Lee’s Lieutenants, The Foxes of Harrow, Kitty Foyle, Apartment in Athens, and some whose titles I’ve forgotten — and yet I never saw him reading a book. I would not call my dad a reader. I don’t know what he thought about my reading habit of seventy plus years, a habit I have never tried to break, but I can hear my mother even now complaining that I always had my nose in a book. Not true, but I did read a lot and thus stood out in my family. In my defense, I was always among the first to turn out for a pickup baseball game. And I didn’t forgo a dance at the teen club to finish the Studs Lonigan trilogy. You don’t have to be a hermit to like reading.
An obituary that merely mentions reading is not enough. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I want my relationship with reading and books reduced to “He liked to read.” As Nero Wolfe would say, “Pfui!!” There’s more to it than that.
My obituary would need to be at least the length of a chapbook to express my long-term relationship to the printed word, especially on the pages of books going back to the time my parents invested in a set of books, sixteen slim volumes still in my possession, that began with nursery rhymes and folk tales and that ended with excerpts from established children’s books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. My father was overseas or in distant Army bases during the first seven years of my life but I have a faint image of him reading about Goldilocks, the Three Billy Goats Gruff, and the Tale of Peter Rabbit. By the time kindergarten came, I was feeling an urge to read the stories myself. Because the illustrations accompanying all of the stories were so inviting, I was especially eager to read the stories that my father had not read to me.
My chapbook reading biography includes my gratitude for the Dick and Jane readers for giving me the confidence to advance to comic books that when read aloud, impressed relatives at family reunions.
My chapbook would have to include my affinity for and use of Army Post Libraries and school libraries from California and Alaska to Germany, both as a dependent and as a soldier. I knew that people bought books because my grandmother would send me Whitman reprints of Tom Sawyer and others, straight out of a dime store, but it never occurred to me to buy a book, even one costing only a quarter because a quarter would buy a comic book, two candy bars, and a Coke. Besides, the libraries that I had access to had more books than the dime store.
Of the hundreds of books I have read, I can see patterns that reflect a phase of my life. Interests come and go and they came and went. I am no longer interested in reading disorders, not enough to read about them, or about psycholinguistics and deep structure, although there was a time I thought it was the most fascinating subject I’d ever come across.
There would have to be a section about German literature in the original and how certain books had me thinking in German by the time I’d finished them: Buddenbrooks; Die Zauberberg; Die Blechtrommel; Die Blendung; and Berlin: Alexanderplatz. These are lengthy novels that transported me far beyond the realm of liking to read.
Reading begets re-reading begets multiple editions of books: The Grapes of Wrath (6 ); Two Years Before the Mast (9 ); Casuals of the Sea (10 ); and Parnassus on Wheels (7). There are several other books and authors that I keep on my shelves to re-read as the mood strikes me, authors who have become old friends: W.W. Jacobs, John Steinbeck, William McFee, Frank Waters, Christopher Morley, Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, and Wright Morris, the only one of my favorites I was privileged to meet and have supper with. I did have lunch with Lawrence Ferlinhetti and I do like A Coney Island of the Mind, but I don’t rank him with the others. I do, however, own a copy of The Portable Beat Reader that contains 19 pages dedicated to the still-living owner of City Lights Bookstore.
In Black Boy by Richard Wright, there’s a telling exchange:
“Boy, are you reading for the law? My aunt would demand.
“Then why are you reading all the time?”
“I like to.”
If you read the entire Black Boy, you will discover that Wright’s “I like to read” is more than that. Reading allows Wright to begin a new life, a life of the mind, a writer’s life.
Contrast Wright, with an unnamed associate of A. Edward Newton as described in The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections:
“I asked a man what he did with his leisure, and his reply was, ‘I play cards. I used to read a good deal but I wanted something to occupy my mind, so I took to cards.’ It was a disconcerting answer.”
Yes, a disconcerting answer but one that suggests that playing cards in the society of others is superior to sitting home alone in your favorite chair, a soft lamp illuminating the pages of your book and you far away in some world of another person’s making.
I suggest, and I know without doubt, that I am not alone, that there is room in our lives to participate in society and enjoy it without surrendering a private, rich, inner life of reading. So if the author of your obituary doesn’t know and really couldn’t know what moves you to read and what reading moves you and stimulates you and provides you solace when nothing else does, it seems okay to state: “He liked to read.”