12. Why Read?
One of the best Christmas memories I have is of being read to on Christmas Eve by my older brother and sister, along with one of their best friends. The book was In Cold Blood. I can’t remember how it came about. I was about to finish this book that was so much more interesting to me than – but perplexingly by the same author as – Breakfast at Tiffany’s and somebody must have suggested it. Perhaps to speed me along- I had a reputation as a non-reader in a reading family. Later on, the film of In Cold Blood came out featuring the author’s life and the germ of this singular book that so complicated the lines between fact, fiction and journalism. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Truman Capote. Hoffman carried off a portrayal of what I can well believe Capote was like – mesmerizing and vain. When he gets the idea for the book he whispers down the telephone to his childhood friend Harper Lee (who had written a totally different kind of masterpiece about compassion around the same time): “When I think about how good my new book is going to be, I can hardly breathe”.
It’s counter-intuitive and perhaps disappointing that I’m making my point with a quote from a film not a book but that drunk breathlessness is how reading makes me feel. Like the first cup of coffee of the day reading, slowly, sometimes carries with it a feeling, a surge, that has on occasion wrought upon me a rush of something almost physical. It is not dissimilar from the sense of Christmas Eve exhilaration when very young, an equivalent perhaps. There is a sense of agency and empowerment when these moments happen, as if you were leaning into the book; our impressions reach out to bind with what the book gives us.
I had taken a while to learn how to read. Not in the sense of learning how to recognize a written word on the page, but how to settle into a personal style of reading. At first I checked books out of the school library without reading them because it looked right, outwardly. Later on, I picked books people seemed to revere to prove I had caught up. It was a waste of time. At university, books like Heart of Darkness and authors like Henry James retaught me how to read, drawing attention to the difference between seeing and knowing, and by rewarding patience with multiple valences. The beginnings of most of my thoughts about people come from books, sometimes helpfully, sometimes in need of revision. At one point in Northanger Abbey – not many people’s favourite Jane Austen, it isn’t mine either- Henry Tilney tells the heroine Catherine Morland, roughly, not to jump to conclusions: ‘Nay, if it is to be guesswork, let us all guess for ourselves’, which, for me, resonated within and beyond the book’s immediate themes.