When I was four I read my first word aloud as I rode in our 1939 Buick whom my parents had named “Brenda.” The word was café but I pronounced it with a silent e, rhyming it with strafe or waif. It was 1949, the war was over and I had two loving parents who quickly and proudly corrected my pronunciation.
That same year, I began reading L. Frank Baum’s series of Oz books. I was too impatient to wait for my mother to find time to read them to me so I figured it out.
Along with breathing, eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom, reading is what I’ve spent most of my seventy-two years doing. I read all the Oz books, uncountable comic books, most every science fiction novel published between 1955 and 1962, all of Steinbeck, Dos Passos and Howard Fast (a mostly-forgotten left-wing writer of historical novels like Citizen Tom Paine) I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Michener, Lawrence Durrell, Mickey Spillane, Aldous Huxley, D.T. Suzuki and Jack Kerouac before graduating high school.
Reading was my escape from boredom and bullying, from loneliness and fear. It was my balm and inspiration. It was my mother’s most precious legacy.
In college, I read Sartre, Camus, St. Exupéry, Racine, Moliere and others, in French.
So far this year, 2017, I’ve read several books about Buddhism, two novels by George Eliot, Don Quixote, Six novels by Ursula K. LeGuin and four by Octavia Butler. I loved them all. Or: I loved reading them all, even those books I may not have loved in themselves
These days I have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Maybe it’s part of aging; maybe it’s the medication I have to take since I had a couple of seizures in 2015. When I finally am able to rouse myself from the intermittent doze in which I nearly drown between the hours of nine and eleven AM, I rush to prepare my gluten-free steel-cut oatmeal and coffee with rice milk in order to begin reading. I read my current book or I read this week’s New Yorker or last Sunday’s New York Times. After an hour or so of crawling, running, leaping and swimming through a few thousand words, my morning depression loses its grip and I can begin to inhabit my body.
This morning I finished reading You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie. It’s a memoir written in very short chapters, some of which are poems. The chapters dance circles around the life and death of Sherman’s mother, Lillian, on the Spokane reservation in Eastern Washington, land of no-more-salmon, ubiquitous radioactive waste, alcoholism and internalized oppression.
How can reading about such pain bring pleasure? Is it because Sherman’s stories of his painful childhood on the rez – the poverty, the bullying, the violent chaos, the twisted love – are specific, lived experiences that most humans go through to varying degrees?
I’m getting nervous as I write this. Compared to Sherman’s childhood, mine was edenic. Like all good progressives, I sure don’t want to appropriate another group’s oppression. But Sherman happens to be a fucking brilliant writer who invites everyone into his story. For instance:
After neurosurgery, I have learned that my brain is a boardinghouse where my waking consciousness rents one room with a hot plate and a black-and-white TV while the rest of the rooms are occupied by a random assortment of banshees, ghosts, mimes wearing eagle feathers, and approximately twelve thousand strangers who look exactly like me.
I haven’t had neurosurgery, though it was offered to me once. But I sure know that boarding house. Mine is occupied by rabbis, untranslated yiddish poets, old vaudevillians and my own twelve thousand imposters.
And that’s why I can never stop reading. How else could I understand the ways in which the inner life of a middle class, old, L.A.-born Jew can rhyme with the struggles and revelations of a fifty-something urban Indian writer?
Is it a tired truism to say that reading promotes empathy? Maybe so, but if my life of reading has even partly balanced the human tendancy to draw lines around one’s own race, gender, nationality, species, and place everyone else outside that imaginary circle and call them “other” or “enemy,” then I sing its praises. Reading taught me how to praise and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me is as full of praise and honor songs as it is of lamentations. As in my life, I’m not sure which is which.