Writers Reading

 

“I take it as an article of faith that novels I have loved will live in me forever.” Pat Conroy, author of My Reading Life (and The Boo, The Water is Wide, Prince of Tides, et al)

“People who write books generally read books, and most books carry with them the traces of some of the hundreds or thousands of books the writer read before attempting the one at hand.” Will Schwalbe, author of Books for Living (and The End of Your Life Book Club, Send)

I love to read books. I love to write books. So I decided to write a book about reading books.” David G. Hallman, author of Book Tales (and August Farewell, Searching for Gilead, et al)

* * *

Philip Roth, one of the most renowned American writers and author of Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, declared in a 2011 interview that, “I don’t read fiction anymore…I wised up.” He apparently prefers history and biography now. But, at least he is still reading.

Virtually every writer that I know, reads, most of us voraciously. It is more than just curiosity about what others are writing, their subject matter, and their style. There is an intellectual stimulation and an emotional nurturing and a spiritual enrichment that we gain by delving into the stories created by others’ imagination and research. But it goes even further. Reading feels as essential for us as food and water. We couldn’t survive without it. And we couldn’t write if we didn’t read.

I’ve read three books recently in which writers talk about the role that reading has played in their lives and about specific books that were particularly important for them: Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living, and Book Tales by a guy named David G. Hallman.

I take two major insights away from these books, one about life and one about death.

The first lesson is the importance of reading in our lifelong formation as writers and then, by extension, in the creation of our identities as human beings.

Pat Conroy says, “My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always…I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school…From the beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself…stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”

Will Schwalbe puts it, “What follows (in Books for Living) are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions…Many of the books I write about are books I first read when I was young. I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.”

Rather than quote myself, I’ll quote one of the reviewers: “Book Tales, a collection of short stories by David G. Hallman, explores literature and sexuality as dual forces in the construction of a person’s experience and identity…Often explicitly erotic and always well-written, these stories explore the connection between life and art, from haunted artists to the stories that haunt us…Hallman’s use of books as a recurring theme is always evident…Hallman honors the lives of those who create art as much as the lives of those who consume it. By illuminating the intertwined struggles of sexuality, identity, love, and loss, this collection’s atmospheric style and intimate characterization create seven rich worlds well worth reading to the bittersweet end.”

For Conroy, Schwalbe, and Hallman, reading books has played a key role in how they understand themselves and indeed how they have created themselves from childhood through adulthood. And there are bittersweet ends that they have each experienced in which literature continues to be an active ingredient.

Conroy died of pancreatic cancer on March 4, 2016. My Reading Life was published in 2010. Near the end of the book, he writes, “The subject matter of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death.”

Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club is a memoir of his accompaniment of his mother as she dealt with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and about the books that they read together and discussed during those last eighteen months of her life. In Books for Living, he comments, “During this time we read casually, promiscuously, and whimsically, allowing one book to lead us to another…At times the books gave us something to talk about when we wanted to talk about anything rather than her illness. But they also gave us a way to talk about subjects that were too difficult to address directly. They helped guide and prompt our conversations, so that I could learn as much as I could from my mother while she was still here to teach me.”

I wrote the memoir August Farewell after Bill, my longtime partner, died two weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is subtitled, The last sixteen days of a thirty-three-year romance. The final chapter in Book Tales is one of the stories with a semi-fictionalized autobiographical component. It concludes, “Patrick lifts himself up out of the chair and goes over to the piano. He runs his fingers lightly over the keyboard. He depresses the keys A-A-A-B flat-F-A, the three first bars of Breathe on Me, Breath of God. And repeats, more softly. He leans over and picks up the ceramic box from the window ledge and returns to his chair. Resting it in his lap, Patrick traces the raised glazing of the fish symbol on the cover. He lifts the lid and stares at the tiny sealed bag of gray dust that he had taken out of the urn before the interment of Evan’s ashes. Poking up ever so slightly from the midst of the ashes is a silver ring. Patrick lifts his right hand to his mouth and rests his lips on its twin on his finger.”

Three writers. Reading and writing. Life, identify, and death.

* * *

For information on Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, see: http://www.patconroy.com/about.php

For information on Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living, see: http://willschwalbe.com

For information on my Book Tales, see: http://davidghallman.com

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