The question occurred to me after I finished chapter 10 of Jo Nesbo’s gripping mystery The Thirst. The obvious answer, as it may be for you too, is that in reading fiction I like to be entertained, escape reality, and experience pleasure in the exploits of fictional characters, and in the case of non-fiction, I enjoy reading about real people and ideas that stimulate and challenge me. I’ve come to like Harry Hole, a recurring police detective in Nesbo’s murder mysteries.
He’s bright, skilled at what he does, intuitive, caring, a recovering addict, and like me he has a dark side that he intermittently and reluctantly embraces. I identify with him.
Ask yourself: Why do you read? You’re reading this piece so it’s likely books have played and continue to play an important role in your life—what is it?
My earliest memories involve the simple adventures of Dick and Jane, Spot, Tim and Puff. The large typeface and colorful pictures made words come alive. The Bobbsey Twins and Hardy Boys series introduced me to fictitious peers whose adventures I wanted in my life.
I recall the excitement of pre-teen years, walking to the public library in Hastings-on-Hudson, library card in my pocket, to check out as many books as I could carry the half mile back to my home on South Drive. The prospect of new adventures and discoveries outweighed walking on hot summer days, defying threatening thunderstorms or the biting cold winter afternoons along slippery sidewalks. If I close my eyes and let my mind wander back to those early stories of Dick and Jane, Bert and Nan, Flossie and Freddie, and Frank and Joe as well as the Young Patriot biographies I plucked from the library shelves I can’t recall many details of their tales. What I do remember is the sense of awe and wonderment that words created and the time and place when the magic occurred.
Books unshackled my soul from my present-day existence and catapulted me to places I hadn’t known I wanted to be. I didn’t understand this when I was young, but the allure of stories coupled with the time and place in which they entered my life has been a wonderful decades-long journey.
The earliest such memory is being nestled in my father’s lap when his hand enveloped mine to guide me along the lines of print, then point my index finger to the pictures the words described. Another involves my grandfather reading from one of the three daily newspapers he devoured as I sat next to him on the couch. I became mesmerized by his voice and the way he folded and unfolded the sheets of newspaper. I recall the embassy schoolyard in Oslo, Norway, where my classmates and I regaled each other with the latest goings-on of the Bobbsey twins and Hardy boys. I recall the darkened “cave” I created (when I was supposed to be sleeping) by pulling the bedcovers over my head, turning on the flashlight and opening Captain Blood or whichever of Rafael Sabatini’s sea-faring adventures had become my secret afterhours companion.
The walk from my home to the Hastings library can be recounted, almost step for step—the ballfield and playground, surrounding homes, storefronts and churches all embedded in my memory. So too are trips to Norway, a solo summer adventure when I was fifteen, and the other at twenty when my college friend David and I spent the summer in Denmark employed by the company where my father worked as a consultant—books filled the spare time, but for me are remembered less for their content than for the circumstances and environments in which they were read.
I carry books with me to the office, pack them when I travel, and surround myself with them in my home office. It has been a life-long love affair with dust-jackets, pages and bindings, stories, and the places where I was touched by them—on planes, trains, autos, and once while riding a motorcycle, in hotel beds, rest areas, and national and local parks, over drinks or during meals at roadside taverns and five-star restaurants, on mountaintops and valleys, indoors as well as outdoors—books and their stories are a constant in my life.
On occasion, I’ve left an unfinished book on the plane, in a hotel room, or at my office mailbox with the inscription: I tried but couldn’t get into this. Hope you can. Roger
They’re my faithful companions, and though many of the stories have faded over time I recall the feelings stirred in my soul when I read them—a grounding in place and time.
Beyond the carved Norwegian trolls that grace my office desk, pressed against the not too distant wall, are five of the baker’s dozen book shelves that occupy all but a few linear feet of my small home office and waiting area. When I swivel in my desk chair four more of the thirteen are within reach—two each to my right and left. If the storage closet next to the office entrance could be gutted of files and office supplies I’d cover its walls with book-lined shelves.
At some point in my for-pleasure reading life, turning the pages to follow the plot and characters became an experience grounded in time and space. I can recall authors, titles, and some storylines of the books I’ve loved reading. And there are those which I couldn’t finish and try to forget, as well as the ones I did complete only to be disappointed and left wanting.
When I visit new places or revisit familiar haunts I often find a new bookstore, or one I’ve known, where I walk among the shelves thinking: “Oh, that looks good! Maybe I’ll have time for this.” Or: “That’s one I’ve been looking forward to, I can read this one in JFK.” Or: I’ve not read one of hers in ages, and I love the way she writes.”
I’ve read Shakespeare’s plays when they were high school and college assignments. I’ve read them in later years for pleasure, and enjoyed his sonnets. And though I will revisit his magnificent writings again, it is the memory of a candlelit reading with my beloved dog that first comes to mind. Falstaff, a fourteen-year-old Samoyed was dying, and on the night before his death I went to his bed, lit candles, poured a glass of Cabernet, and lay in silence next to him. When the time seemed right I opened my copy of one of Shakespeare’s plays to Henry lV and repeated his namesake’s words: “I would it were bedtime, Hal, and all well.”
photo courtesy of Dogs-reading-booksby