Updated: Apr 10
My family is a collection of obsessive readers, and much of the lore of family identity revolves around books. Our parents met over a stack of books, my sister blocked out breakfast sounds by compulsively reading the backs of cereal boxes, and every day there was a dedicated hour to reading after lunch (to be clear, this was after a lunch in which we listened to an audiobook). My parents weren't completely comfortable with me reading Harry Potter, so they had a rule that I had to read seven other books for each rereading of one of Rowling's tomes. I flirted with the classics, but my serious loves were in Patricia Wrede's enchanted forest, Victoria Hanley's healer's keep, J.R.R. Tolkien's shire, and Brian Jacques's Redwall Abbey. And Hogwarts. I lived and breathed the books of Hogwarts. Reading was an adventure in my childhood. I read about the dragons, and then zoomed around my neighborhood imagining my own quests and courageous acts. The creative streams from books opened up deep waters. There seemed to be no boundary to what my mind could create.
But, in early adolescence reading shifted to primarily escapism and a blocking out the self, often to find a way out of loneliness and shame. The colorful fantasy world that had blended into my reality faded away, and I was gripping on tightly to a creaky ship on tumultuous seas, powerless to direct its course. I read Jane Austen, and the beautiful prose and witty subversion of oppression felt like white rose petals on a muddied brain. The way the stories were told started to matter a lot more to me. I fell in love with Shakespeare, loving the stories, but overwhelmed by the unfathomable depth of the wordplay and beauty intermingled with fart jokes. I remember the day before leaving for college, restless and wary of what was to come, I read all of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennet's wit, kindness, and personal growth put me at ease, and I felt that I would survive my my own personal bildungsroman, and maybe even come out the better for it.
In college, reading was a lot more analytical and outcomes based. What is the tenor? Vehicle? How does this motif allude to others? What will I be tested on? I remember reading again and again The Turn of the Screw, trying to unlock its puzzles. I didn't care that a character died; it was a matter of the mind, not the affections. When I read Moby Dick, I despised it for being so long. I had touches of wonder at profundity of the sea, but squashed those feelings down to gather more evidence for my impending twenty page argument due in four days. I did have waves of wonder: Paradise Lost, Keats, Anna Karenina. And rereads of Harry Potter. But books were a matter of the mind, pièces de résistance to unravel hegemonic waves of humanity. Little sputterings of creativity would rise, but hyper-critics, rampant on university campuses, would stamp them flat with their Adorno and Horkheimer handbooks. This time of reading sounds rather bleak and more like an algebraic equation rather than a work of art, but it was, in fact, a good time of reading. I was introduced to the details, the minutia, the layers of meaning, the connections to the past, the breaking of norms, the connotative and denotative meanings. Sometimes I lost the ocean for the water droplets, but I was really seeing the water droplets for the first time.
Post-college reading has not returned to escapism or to critical analysis (on the whole). The weltanschauungs, methods, allusions, and historicity persists in my mind, and I am grateful for them. They, in fact, inform and deepen the beauty of the adventures.The mind and the heart are not diametrically opposed. Reading with one and obfuscating the other leaves blind spots. Knowing the specific threads that Rowling weaves in Harry Potter doesn't lessen the beauty of the tapestry: it makes it all the more magnificent, if you can inspect closely and step back to see how it contributes to the whole. Creativity with just the affections is limited in its understanding: it sees the surface and the reader's interior. Creativity with just the mind is limited to a shipment of facts, rather than the design of aesthetic vessel. The combination of the head knowledge and imagination is pure magic.
But. Julia Cameron had the audacity to tell me not to read in The Artist's Way. I had finally reached a good balance. Reading wasn't black and white or smudgy images: it was vivid and in color. Why did she want me to take a break from it? For a week?! Wasn't reading a virtuous intellectual and creative stewardship? Taking that much-begrudged break from reading and writing in the morning pages Julia mandated shipwrecked me and brought me to the third, lost part of literature: my story. My writing. My imagination. I met the creative works of others with my creative mind, but hadn't grasped the helm to chart my own stories. When the host of other voices are shouting (think: Alia in Children of Dune), you can't hear your own voice. Or complete your bildungsroman.
Both reading with my mind and with my heart have brought joy and knowledge, but putting them together in the pandemic has been magical: reading what I love and what I don't, undulating between self-awareness and self-forgetfulness, reading for community and reading for the secret self, and reading to forget and to remember. But even now, I'm reading together a sail for the voyage of my own.