In high school, I was an indifferent student, and when I read for pleasure it was usually Sports Illustrated or some other sports publication. That changed during my senior year when I encountered George Orwell’s famously bleak novel 1984, in which almost nothing is private and agents are always watching, watching, watching. Orwell’s message was blunt: The state, if it were ruthless enough, would go to any length—including into one’s bedroom—to root out dissidents and torture them in creative ways.
In college, if one of my professors mentioned an important book—such as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a fictionalized version of Sinclair’s muckraking reporting in early twentieth-century Chicago—I would make a note to read the book when I had time. I didn’t need much prodding. One summer I discovered Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and a year later I dove into the 1400-page War and Peace. I happened to be house-sitting for one of my professors at the time, and I had limitless time to read. The deeper I got into the book, the more the fictional narrative seemed to blot out anything else I was doing.
And it wasn’t just great novels that I wanted to read. I looked forward, as the new school year approached, to see which books my poli sci professors would assign. Yes, I enjoyed reading textbooks and marking the relevant passages with a yellow highlighter.
By the end of college, I’d had enough of textbooks, and, after getting my first job as a newspaper reporter, in Connecticut, I began buying books frequently. My editor’s wife worked in a bookstore, and it was there that I purchased John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick. It was not one of Updike’s best novels, but the book’s cover, designed by Updike himself, was gorgeous: within a scarlet frame was Albrecht Dürer’s etching of four full-bodied naked witches. I’ve never reread the book, but it conjures up a time when I was very ambitious and still very young.
Not long after moving to Boston in the fall of 1985, my ambitions took a left turn. Forsaking journalism for fiction writing, I found myself two years later in grad school. I chafed at having time only for reading what was on the syllabus. When a Hemingway scholar intimated that he could get me into the Ph.D. program at Stanford, I declined his help. I’d had enough of reading from other people’s syllabuses.
The reading I was doing wasn’t just pleasure reading, though most of the books I read I enjoyed. I drew on the formulation that reading was to writing as weight-training is to strength. Once I’d completed my master’s I was reading a new book almost every week. Of course, there was no great reason to keep that pace up, other than that I loved reading.
Has reading become more challenging since I started showing the symptoms of Alzheimer’s? Yes, when the text is particularly dense. Over the past week I’ve been reading a new biography of Martin Luther, written in an accessible fashion. If I had purchased the book, rather than borrowing it from the library, I would probably have done much underlining and annotating, to help me concentrate on the text. Fiction, because of its narrative pull, tends to be easier for me to read than nonfiction, though there are exceptions. When a friend of mine and I made a trip to Berlin and Prague last September, I brought along a translation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle.
Unfortunately, the translator chose strict adherence to the original German, with many paragraphs that extend for four pages or more. I gave up with 50 pages to go—though I feel absolved since Kafka himself, dying from tuberculosis, left off in mid-sentence. The final, almost random, sentence ends like a bridge still under construction: “She held out her trembling hand to K. and had him sit down beside her, she spoke with great difficulty, it was difficult to understand her, but what she said”
And that’s how the narrative ended, like a bridge project that ran out of funding. I am aware, of course, that there will likely come a time that my funding will run out as well. And that will be a very dark day for sure, akin, perhaps, to a form of blindness.