Addicted to Reading

Summers are for reading
Beach and books
Photo by Link Hoany

Over the past weeks, I’ve been waxing nostalgic about “what not to do during a pandemic.” I’ve compared the present confining situation to past summers of relative freedom. You have joined me in journeys as far away as the Ukraine.  Or simply sat beside me at a Chicago baseball game. There is, however, another time-honored summer tradition – the art of doing something that comes as close as possible to doing nothing at all.

Such pastimes remain happily intact. For the rest of the summer, I’ll share my thoughts about summer delights that the quarantine doesn’t limit. Some, in fact, are made easier by staying home.   Reading novels tops the list of my “do-almost-nothing” category of summer pleasures.

guilty indulgences

While for some folks reading falls in the “should” classification of activities, for me it is essentially a guilty indulgence. And

Child on bed with books
Photo by Annie Spratt

guilty pleasures are by far the best ones. I can thank my mother for turning reading into the apple in the Garden of Eden. Like many in her generation, my mother firmly believed that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” Her busy life attested to this conviction. Spare time did not exist for my mother, the overwhelmed mother of five young children and a homemaker with very high standards as in “cleanliness is next to Godliness.

As the eldest child in that family and a girl to boot, my designated role in life, from before I learned to read, was “mother’s helper.” Mom shifted whatever chores she could to my shoulders and still remained as busy as a bee. Consequently, by the time I discovered the joy of reading, time to indulge that source of pleasure was decisively limited.

coveted hideaway

Summer reading took on an additional layer of guilt. When I was growing up, adults believed children  belonged outside whenever possible whatever the weather.  This principle held firmest over the summer no matter how high the temperature soared.  Then, as now, I hated heat. In those days before air-conditioning, the coolest place in our house in summer was the basement. Behind the big iron coal-burning furnace was stored  a decrepit chaise.

Our kitchen’s backstairs led both to door

Basement stairs
Photo by Charles Deluvio

to the yard and to the basement. This arrangement made it possible for me to appear to head outside when I was in reality creeping down the basement steps, book in hand, to curl up on the old chaise and read. For one whole summer, I didn’t need to take my own books to the basement because I found an old set of Zane Grey novels in the fruit cellar.  The highlight of that summer was the discovery that the phrase, “meanwhile back at the ranch,” seemed to have originated in those exciting narratives.

please don’t tell

I carried the sense that taking the time to curl up with a good novel was a frivolous waste of time into my own stint as a

Pride and Prejudice
Photo by Rawkkim

young mother and homemaker. In fact, I allowed myself to become addicted to the what many in the literary world might deem the worst possible genre of all – Historical Romance. http://Romances.

Not without reason, I shared with very few people my love of these drawing-room comedies with their fairy tale endings. I feared I would be scoffed at. After all, I was an educated woman with a degree in English. The same mother’s voice deep inside that told me I needed to restrict how much time I spent reading would also nag me to read “better” books. It suggested biography, history, or the classics.

As I had no free time until evening, I read, as many do, just before falling asleep at night.  By that time, I had prepared and cleaned up after a meal for six.  I had also bathed, read to, and tucked four children of various ages into bed. There was probably laundry to fold that I was ignoring. My energy level simply wasn’t up to “good literature.” So, I sought escape into this lesser genre.

What is a “good” book?

But was it somehow unworthy of my time and attention? Novels were not then, and are not now, the only thing I read. I also read to become informed. When I read non-fiction, I prefer short-form articles in magazines and journals. I know that many people become completely engrossed by topics like religion, travel, politics, business, and science and are more than happy to delve into book-length discussions of their favorite subjects.  That’s not me.

Book and cup of tea
Photo by Negin Mrd

Narrative literature, whether non-fiction or fiction, informs a different dimension of my self. Reading to gain information primarily involves my intellect. But when I delve into a memoir or a novel, they engross my psyche and my emotions.

Their stories reveal truths about the human condition that help me make sense of my own life. I follow the characters as they learn life lessons and apply them to my own experience. When good things happen for a character to whom I am drawn, I feel encouraged because I identify with them. None of this happens at an analytical level. I could, I suppose, if I were to write an essay about the experience analyze what it is I learned in reading a particular book or how it changed my perspective. As I read, however, it simply happens.  I don’t think about it while reading.

back to the present

It’s fair to ask if a Historical Romance novel could possibly be vivid and evocative enough to provide the enlightenment, I

Flowers and book
Photo by Brigitte Tohm

claim for them. Can these stories, which inevitably end “happily-ever-after,” deliver a moral or a message? More to the point, since romances captivated me in my twenties but have lost their luster for me in my elder years, what were the life lessons, the love lessons they offered me then?

Observing relationships within families and between men and women in an era and in a place vastly different than my own offered me a distance, an objectivity by which I could discern what worked and what didn’t in intimate relationships of any period, including my own. Not every novel laying claim to the genre, “Historical Romance,” offered me a vivid enough identification with its characters and their challenges and triumphs to pull off such discernment. On many occasions I bought or borrowed a book, began to read it, and quickly laid it aside.

For a narrative to hold my interest, the world the author built had to be completely valid. The details of description needed to portray a picture as authentic as a painting executed in the early 19th century. That included how articles of clothing were depicted. The characters’ speech, its rhythm and vocabulary, had to conform to ways people spoke at that time. This was especially true in what they thought and how much of what they thought they felt comfortable expressing and to whom.  If these, and any number of other details, reflected a late 20th century mindset, I immediately lost interest in the narrative. It had nothing to teach me.

through an alternative lens

Pulling me totally into their world and out of my own was the

Woman on bed w books
Photo by Lacie Slezak

only way the author could evoke deep sentiments. At that level of complexity the tale roused in me a profund emotional response. This response to altered my perceptions. My own relationships were easier to examine through the lens of an alternative cosmos. The characters modeled ways of accepting unexpected change and dealing with loss. They showed determination in the pursuit of goals and discrimination in the maintenance if friendship. Wealth and the temptation of greed confronted them.  Poverty and war were survived. Characters made tough choices and overcame adversity.  In other words, their experiences mirrored many of my own, but at a distance that made absorbing the lessons somewhat easier.  Yet, through those, I moved more solidly into adulthood.

Not all the lessons were personal. When a particular society is under the microscope of a compelling narrative that examines the familial and intimate relationships within that society, broader issues about the culture and its social mores become apparent.  I could see and yearn for some of the benefits of living in what might have been described as a “more civilized” time, but I could also see the ugliness beneath the surface. It made me both appreciate the improvements of living in the 20th century but also ask what troubled depths lay hidden in my culture. And they were myriad.

hindsight – more powerful than foresight

How do I know this?  Through hindsight. Awareness of the process was unconscious at the time.  While reading, I simply escaped – away from doing dishes, changing diapers, and folding laundry into luxurious salons and ballrooms. But, without fully realizing it, I returned knowing more about myself.

Moscow Mule and books
Photo by Shangyou Shi

“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” – Groucho Marx

What is your favorite kind of book? Or do you have another guilty summer pleasure?