The Magic of Reading Books: “A moveable feast.”

“…what made me a reader were the experiences I got from the books themselves. An obvious assertion, but a true one. It is easy enough in retrospect to see a book as a screen, a shield, an escape, but at the time there was just the magic – the startling and renewable discovery that a page covered with black markings could, with a slight mental exertion, be converted into an environment, an inward depth populated with characters and animated by diverse excitements. A world inside the world, secre ta nd concealable. A world that I could carry about as a private resonance, a daydream, even when I was not reading. A moveable feast.

“From the time of earliest childhood, I was enthralled by books. First just by their material mysteries. I studied pages of print and illustrations, started myself into the wells of fantasy that are the hallmark of the awakening inner life. Mostly there was pleasure, but not always. I remember a paralytic terror brought on by the cartoon dalmatians pictured on the endpapers of my Golden Books. For a time I refused to be alone in the room with the books, even when the covers were safely closed. Ascribing power to likeness, I thought the dog would slip free of their confinement and come baying after me.

“But that was the exception. Dreamy sensuousness generally prevailed. A page was a field studded with tantalizing signs and a book was a vast play structure riddled with openings and crevices I could get inside. This notion of hiding, secreting myself in a text was important to me – it underlies to this day my sense of a book as a refuge. That I could not yet translate the letters into words and meanings only added to the grave mysteriousness of the artifact. On the far side of that plane of scrambled markings was a complete other world. And then one day the path came clear. I was in the first grade. I went over and around and suddenly through the enormous letter shapes of Kipling’s Jungle Book. The first sentence, that is. I read! And from that moment on, the look of a word became a window onto its meaningful depths.

“Once I got underway, I was an interested, eager, but not terribly precocious reader…. I was a dreamer and books were my tools for dreaming. I read the ones that were more or less suited to my age and did so devotedly. Books about Indian chiefs, explorers, and dogs; biographies of inventors and athletes; the pasteurized versions of London and Poe that came via the Scholastic Book Club. I had the first real thrill of ownership in second or third grade, when the teacher broke open the first shipment and handed each of us in the class the books we had ordered. Later it was the Hardy Boys, with their illustrated covers and crisp blue spines; the James Bond, the slim pocketbooks reeking of …high-class gadgetry. Not until I was in junior high did I begin to make contact with some of the so-called ‘better’ books – by Salinger, Wolfe, Steinbeck and others. But even then I had no idea of bettering myself. I was simply looking for novels with characters whose lives could absorb mine for a few hours.”

Sven Birkerts in the second chapter (“The Paper Chase,” on why he became a writer – because of his love of reading!) of his book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (Faber and Faber, 1994; pp.35-36), a book I recently began to read. I am enjoying and benefiting from the author’s description of the wonder of the reading experience, of how the printed page has the power to transport you to worlds unknown and pleasures unseen and to give you a place of peace and happiness in a world of trouble and misery.

Published in: on May 4, 2022 at 10:07 PM  Leave a Comment