How I learned to love reading

My Grandpa used to say it was unwise to give a good book to a bad mind. Don’t even attempt to read the Russians until you’re twenty-five. But I did it anyway, of course; got my copy of Crime and Punishment, and carried it around with me for my entire sophomore year of high school.

I’d read a sentence, reread the sentence, read it again…and finally move on just to turn the page. My family made fun of me; called the book, and the bag in which I carried it, my security blanket, because I wouldn’t leave home without it—though I rarely touched it en route.

I’ve been reading people’s lists of the ten most influential books of their lives. I don’t think I remember a word of anything I read before I was twenty-one. My brain wasn’t ready—too overwhelmed by hormones and drama to pick up on nuances and symbolisms. So I picked out the fattest, most conspicuous books I could find to carry around in order to appear intelligent.

My seventh grade year was marked by a hard-backed copy of Anne of Avonlea. It shouldn’t have been too hard for me to read, but it was. My freshman year of high school was Eleni by Nicholas Gage, which I could actually talk about when people asked, because I had seen the movie.

Interspersed in the fat and impressive books, were books that I did read: books about ESP and the paranormal, Babysitters Club books, Vogue Magazines. I didn’t advertise these reads. I gobbled them up in private, just like I’d horde chocolate in my drawers so that no one else could see my appetite for junk.

Part of the problem of growing up in a well-read family is that we all knew that some books were better than others. I could read a thousand Sweet Valley books and they wouldn’t total the value of one Dostoevsky. As it should be. The problem was that I didn’t “get” Dostoevsky, and Sweet Valley was a piece of cake. It wasn’t fair. None of my reading counted.

Meanwhile, in our living-room, my older sister had curled her body into a pretzel and was squinting her eyes into the minuscule print of Gone With the Wind which she finished in all of two weeks. Her concentration was unbreakable. I was invisible to her, though I crawled up behind the wing-back chair in which she sat and put my finger in her ear, or whispered words like “suburban” and “couperf” and “satchel” because I knew she hated those words.

Her friends would ride their bikes over to play, find her reading, and have to be satisfied with my company. And I would be playing Barbies, no doubt, making the dolls do naughty things, and then saying, “It’s ok, they’re married,” even though in my head, they were not.

One of my boys recently said, “I have a walnut-sized brain for school and a football-sized brain for comedy.” That’s me. My brain was too full of the junk to make room for anything of importance. I wanted to entertain, and be entertained—not to learn. As my husband told my son, however, “If you don’t change those proportions, you’ll be able to look forward to a walnut-sized salary someday.”

And so, in my later college years, I set about acquiring the skills of an intellectual—which meant, getting rid of my junk-food literary diet, becoming sort of somber and withdrawn (partially the outcome of failed relationships), and emulating my sister’s reading habits.

I hate to say that my brain was just waiting for someone to turn the lights on. Either it came of age, or getting serious, and having a few more “adult” experiences under my belt, helped me to understand more serious matters. In any case, I suddenly understood. I began to read literature for leisure. I read with a pen in hand to keep notes of things that interested me—I still do.

And I felt personal connections for the first time with characters in my books.

I met my husband while I was a senior in college. Every now and then, this Duffy guy would call up and ask me to go to a Pacers game or something low-brow like that, which didn’t fit my new intellectual standards. But apparently he still liked me, and was interested enough to read Anna Karenina because it was my favorite book at the time.

When I asked him what he thought of it, he made some sort of allusion to Anna being a loose woman. It would be two years before I would go out with him again after that comment. Criticize Anna, criticize me. I took books very seriously and anyone who couldn’t comprehend the nuances of Anna’s situation had no business with me.

What I didn’t realize at the time is that my future husband was being glib. And it was I who couldn’t comprehend glibness in the face of a literary master. I had slid from one extreme to another, from book avoidance, to book worship. The only way out of my predicament was to read more, and more. The more I read, the more I could compare. The greater my literary experience, the better equipped I was to critique, and even at times, to poke fun.

I read for ten years. Throughout my twenties, while I was having babies like hotcakes, and they were all little and slept a lot, I would lay on my bed in the afternoon with sleeping kids around me, reading. I read out loud to them, at least the early ones, from whatever I happened to be reading at the time. I read a couple books a week, or more. I read Anna Karenina again, and found a couple things to laugh at.

I wish I still read like that, but I don’t. I go on reading benders here and there. And then I go on a writing bender. But the kids are older, and I can’t languish in bed in the afternoons anymore. Reading is after dark, which puts it at stiff competition with sleep, and writing, and surfing the internet (which somehow never puts me to sleep).

I want to read again. I need to read again. I feel a bender coming on, but it’s going to take some work, as reading benders don’t always come with the ease of, well, other types of benders. Junk out, good stuff in.




( This post originally appeared on my other blog.)

About Elizabeth Duffy
  • Lauren

    I can relate. Completely. On weekends when I’d go visit my father, he would give me a $10 and let me walk to the bookstore up the street. I would wander around, a 12 year old girl. The grown ups would watch me…. Anyway, I finally found the ‘Classics’ section. I’d pull out the thickest books, the books with the most beautiful covers and stack them on the floor. And then I’d start. I’d pick each one up. I’d flip to the middle. Flip to the end. I’d see if I could understand a word, and sort them into stacks of ‘readable’ and ‘unreadable’ and end up buying one. Sometimes I’d finish, sometimes not. I felt so grown up. I still have most of those books and have read them again and again. There’s something romantic about them for me now.

    • Elizabeth Duffy

      I love the readable and unreadable piles. I kinda do that now–only it’s more about whether or not I can tolerate the narrator.

  • JMB

    “I read out loud to them, at least the early ones” LOL everything you write makes me laugh. OK I think a lot of good books are wasted on the young. I read the Great Gatsby last summer with my son (16) for summer reading and I couldn’t believe what I had missed my first go around at 16. There was no way I could understand the nuances of the Eastern Yalie background or how Nick was so in over his head in a place that he would never fit in or belong, much like Gatsby. Who knows that stuff at 16? The other thought I have is that reading is very much a leisure activity and a hobby. Serious readers can be like alcoholics. They would rather read than do anything else. It can cut you off from relationship and living in the real world. That is escapism.

  • Elizabeth Duffy

    JMB, I’ve definitely been the escapist reader before. Of course–there are many, many ways to play that game.

    So true, though, that good books are wasted on the young. My kids, of course, didn’t get a bit of what I read them–but I think I thought it might improve their language skills or something, like those baby Einstein videos. My poor younger kids, though, barely get the ABCs.

  • MelanieB

    I think to some extent it isn’t a waste of time to read good books to the young. Depends on the books. Even when a lot goes over their heads, they get to hear the sound of well-written language, the rhythm of sentences that have been composed rather than tossed at the paper. But I think read-alouds of stories of general interest to the whole family are different in that respect from a teen (or pre-teen) trying to tackle something that’s way over their head like War and Peace.