being a reader, again and still

There’s a story my parents used to tell of me as a child and how much I loved to read. Reading was what my family did in the evenings; we sat in the room we referred to as the study and read. One evening I was so deeply engrossed in my book that I had no idea they were talking to me; this was entertaining enough that they were both watching me to see how long it would be before I responded. It was long enough that it became a tale they told, part of how they understood who I was.

I have always identified as a reader—a bookworm who understood the world by reading novels. It’s because I loved reading so much that I wanted to be an English professor (yes, if someone hadn’t intervened, I would’ve written one of those applications for grad school that gushed about how I loved to read). When I lived in London, I devoured Victorian novels to try to make sense of my new city. When I had kids, one of the things I looked forward to was reading my favorite books with them. When I was briefly sad on learning that my second child was going to be another boy, I expressed this as a sadness that I wasn’t going to have a daughter to read Little Women with. (There’s some gender normativity going on there, yes, but I read that book in terms of what it meant to be female, so it’s not completely surprising. I still haven’t read it with my boys, actually, and am not sure that’s going to happen, which makes me a bit sad all over again. I loved that book. I love my boys. I’d like to share that with them, but I don’t think they’d like it, and I don’t think I’m up to their not liking it.)

All of this is to say that reading has been an important part of my life and my identity as long as I can remember. But there was a stretch of time that I didn’t read—that I couldn’t read—and I’m still working through that experience.

Eight years ago my father died. He hadn’t been well—he had cerebral palsy and as he hit his mid-sixties, it created more and more problems until at the age of sixty-eight he had such a limited ability to walk and was in such near constant pain that he was miserable. Despite that, not surprisingly, I was completely unprepared for his death. And I lost the ability to read.

I didn’t lose the ability to read words. I still had my eyesight; my brain still functioned normally and turned those squiggly marks on the page into words in my head. But I lost the desire to read, to pick up a novel and sink into it.

When I got the phone call that my dad was dying, I was in the middle of English, August, a book about a young man in India. I took my book, packed my clothes, cancelled all my plans, and got on the plane. But when I was at my parents’ house, and it was nighttime, and I was lying in bed with my father dying downstairs, I couldn’t pick up my book. It was the last thing in the world I could inhabit. So I picked up an old collection of Tony Hillerman mysteries and started reading those.

My father died, I planned his memorial service, my sister and I struggled through the questions of how to take care of my mom, whose Alzheimer’s was already worse than we’d realized, and I never returned to my novel. It wasn’t just English, August, though. I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read. I had all these things in my head I needed to escape from, and I didn’t know how. My kids needed me, my spouse needed me, I was in therapy for days a week, I was flying back home to visit my mom and sit in this quiet house sorting through all their decades of stuff, and I didn’t know what to read. I needed to want to read, but I didn’t.

I slowly found my way back into books, or at least, books with plots that carried me forward and didn’t dwell on complicated matters. I read a lot of chick lit and mom lit and detective stories, and that was all I read for a long time. I had the urge to read Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun and I read it and I enjoyed it. And then, in 2011, I decided to read Infinite Jest, which seems like a hard way to rediscover the ability to read complicated stories, but it clicked and it took me months but I read it and I loved it and then I was a reader again and I knew who I was.

My only explanation is that I was so lost when my father died that I couldn’t give myself to a book. And so many books ask you to give yourself over to them—to sink into them, to trust them, to let them tell you their story. I was too focused on my story and on trying to understand it, to do what books wanted me to.

When my mom died, six years after my father and six months into my journey through Infinite Jest, I kept on reading. I don’t know why it was different for me this time, except that every death is different. It was better for my mom to die sooner rather than later. That’s one of the horrible things about dementia—there’s no getting better, there’s no pause button, there’s just sicker and sicker until the body goes along with the mind. I wasn’t surprised by my mom’s death in the same way as I had been by my dad’s, and as hard and as awful as it was, it didn’t make me lose my sense of who I was.

And so I am a reader, again and still.

This past year, for the first time, I kept a list of all the novels I read, just to see what they were and to help me remember what books I loved. I read mostly recent books, lots of genres (literary fiction, mysteries, young adult, steampunk—all genres are equal in value if you like them), a couple I disliked (but finished reading anyway), a few I couldn’t finish (forget what scolding op-ed writers tell you; I strongly agree with Alan Jacobs that we should read for pleasure and that time is too short and there are too many wonderful books to spend your time on something you don’t like or worrying about what other people will think of your tastes), many that surprised me, and a few that I think will stay with me for years to come. Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven was beautiful and unexpected and a movingly optimistic experience of post-apocalypse society and what makes civilization. I’m looking forward to reading it again. Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, her memoir of her parents’ decline and deaths, made me nod and laugh and weep in recognition. I’m not sure I’ll read it again, but I know I’ll recommend it to friends struggling through the experience.

I’m in the middle of reading Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves, so I have good feelings about how my 2015 reading will go. I think I’ll return to reading some Victorian novels—a friend has been working her way through Trollope‘s Palliser novels, which I devoured in my London years, so I’m feeling like reading his Barchester series. And I think I’ll continue rereading Infinite Jest, because it’s a book too rich to read once, and I felt bereft when I finished it the first time. I’m grateful to have found a book reviewer whose tastes resonate with mine and who writes evocative reviews—if you haven’t spent time reading Ron Charles in the Washington Post, you should—and so I know that there will be plenty of books for me to discover.

Above all, I hope that I will continue to find books that surprise and move me to laughter, tears, joy, and sorrow. It’s all a reader can ask for, and it’s a tremendous gift for writers to share with us. Here’s to a new year of reading and a lifetime of loving books.


If you’re curious about what I read this year, my list, along with my notes to myself, is below.

1. Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (delightful)
2. Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate (so bad)
3. Jean Thompson, The Year We Left Home (good–rec from CP)
4. Michael Connelly, City of Bones (Harry Bosch!)
5. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch (blech)
6. Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (very nice)

7. Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (rec from MH? ok)
8. Tana French, In the Woods (rec from CR–good but unsatisfying at the end)
9. Adelle Waldman, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (rec from AT–I liked it but not sure why; depressing!)

10. Michael Connelly, Lost Light (harry bosch book 9)
11. [Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins (started reading but abandoned to read Good Lord Bird and no real intention of going back)]

12. James McBride, The Good Lord Bird (v v good)
13. Jenn McKinlay, Cloche and Dagger (a London cozy–enjoyable)
14. Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (because the oldest had to read it for school; I liked it more than he did)

15. Michael Connelly, The Narrows (Harry Bosch book 10)
16. Elliott Holt, Are You One of Them
17. Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird (via Ron Charles’s review–oh, this started off so completely fabulous; the ending let me down, either because I didn’t want the book to end or because it was actually disappointing–I’m not sure which)
18. Laurie R. King, The Art of Detection (Kate Martinelli, which I started reading out of order and am not really sure I enjoyed that much. I enjoyed the story within the story more.)

19. Neil Gaiman, Odd and the Frost Giants
20. Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (really good, though disturbing; probably via Ron Charles)
21. Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere (actually on paper in codex form! also, really enjoyable and very London)
22. Jenn McKinlay, A Mad Hatter Murder (more of the London hatter cozies)
23. Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (I wanted to like it but I didn’t it because it all just seemed so obvious and haranguing)
24. Dinaw Mengestu, All Our Names (via Ron Charles’s review, I think; v good)

25. Gail Carriger, Etiquette and Espionage (first in the Finish School series; I didn’t love it, but then as soon as I finished reading it I started the first chapter of the next and am liking that one much better)
26. Gail Carriger, Curtsies and Conspiracies (Finishing School #2)
27. Michael Connelly, The Closers (aka Harry Bosch 11)
28. C.J. Daugherty, Night School (recommendation from K, very entertaining, devoured it)
29. C.J. Daugherty, Night School: Legacy

30. C.J. Daugherty, Night School: Fracture
31. C.J. Daugherty, Night School: Resistance (I clearly devoured the whole series as it exists to date and am now hanging until the next one comes out)
32. Susan Coll, The Stager (good; darker and less slapsticky than her others, but I knew that from Ron Charles’s review)
33. Chris Bohjalian, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands (via Ron Charles review; v good)
34. Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (better than the first—not so haranguing; glad I decided to read it)
35. Robert Galbraith, The Cuckoo’s Calling (aka JK Rowling’s Cormoran Strike series #1; more enjoyable than expected)
36. Deborah Harkness, Shadow of Night (aka #2 of that series; rereading in prep for….)

37. Deborah Harkness, The Book of Life (aka #3; not as good as 2, which in turn was better than 1)
38. Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam (aka book 3; not as good as book 2, better than book 1)
39. Emma Donoghue, Frog Music (on Ron Charles’s rec; enjoyed this a lot)
40. Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (lots about this to love; I was having a bit of a hard time reading it at night before going to bed–it takes some concentration and that’s difficult at night)
41. Jane O’Connor, Almost True Confessions (aka a sequel to that Admissions book I read having forgotten I already read and owned it in paper form. Ok, but only ok, because while the sleuthing part was okay, the romance part was annoying)
42. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (OMFG I hated this book. The first half was tedious and then when the plot twist happened, it stopped being tedious and started being infuriating for being such misogynistic trash. Angry with myself that I read the whole fucking thing.)

43. Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven (I loved this! I loved it so much I kept recommending it to everyone after I read it. Restored my faith in humankind, in part because it was beautifully written, and there was diversity and love of art and music and most of all because it was actually optimistic. The world isn’t destroyed because it deserves to be—and the Prophet character who explicitly believes this is explicitly lost and damaged—and what is longed for above all, and validated, is a return to electricity and theater and all that makes civilization civilization.)
44. [Jill Lepore, Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin—I liked this well enough, but quit very soon in. I need fiction to read, not history, no matter how lyrically written it tries to be.]
45. [Amor Towles, Rules of Civility—someone recommended this to me but oh, I could not read it and quit. It felt stilted, I guess. Maybe I just wasn’t going to be satisfied with anything after Station Eleven.]
46. David Foster Waller, Infinite Jest (And so this is what I landed on, rereading this because I know it’s good and rich and meaty and everything else felt thin. It’s weird reading it again, and I’m not sure how long I’m going to stick with it. I might mix it up with other things, so I’m listing it here for now.) [on a break]
46. Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus (a rec from R; I enjoyed the first 4/5s a lot, but then not so much; too pat of an ending? I don’t remember now what it was)

47. Tana French, The Likeness (Dublin Murder Squad #2; very good)
48. John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (read because WR folks liked it and chose it for next book club reading and I’m not sure I would have read it otherwise. It was hard going—the mail-away game was an interesting idea, but so much teenage boy suicide that it was really really hard for me to stomach)
49. Kate Atkinson, Case Histories (aka Jackson Brodie #1; wonderful, more like a novel that happens to be about unsolved mysteries than a mystery, in a really good way)
50. William Gibson, The Peripheral (because so many of my friends love him; and it was really good—very hard at the beginning, with so much stuff that wasn’t clear and not much of a way into it, but once it got its hooks in around the 80th page, they were in good; I liked, too, the generosity of it, both in terms of identity politics but also the sense that we aren’t locked into a future)

51. Lauren Beukes, Zoo Story (I think I came across her from @magicianbook’s Salon piece about women writing crime fiction, and then read her first book, not her most recent. It’s slightly askew and baffling at the beginning, then less baffling and darker and darker as it goes. Very good. Will definitely read more of hers.)
52. Michael Connelly, Echo Park (aka Harry Bosch #12; good as always)
53. Ellen Raskin, The Westing Game (because E had mentioned it on twitter; when I started reading it, soon realized that I’d read it as a kid—“amber waves” was the trigger—but couldn’t remember details or the answer to the mystery; fun to read)
54. Austin Aslan, The Islands at the End of the World (because the oldest was reading it for his book club at school; eh)
55. Marie Rutkoski, The Winner’s Curse (enjoyable, though I was feeling a bit fed up up with the YA romance convention)
56. Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (not sure why this ended up on my to-read list now or what made me not want to read it when it came out, but I enjoyed it and, surprisingly, teared up during the slideshow)
57. Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (the only thing I’ve read that even comes close to what it was like when mom and dad were dying. So: hard to read, couldn’t stop reading it, cried)
58. Kate Atkinson, One Good Turn (aka Jackson Brodie #2; I liked it, except for the horrifying realization that Brodie’s age, which is in the book horrifyingly middle aged, is only two years older than I am, and for the aha! final ending. Case Histories was much much better, but I’ll continue reading the series)
59-62. And then I reread the entire Night School series, because I gave away my paper copy of the first book and so bought it on Kindle (because 99 cents and I’m compulsive) and didn’t know what to read next so found myself stating that late at night and then couldn’t stop.

17 thoughts on “being a reader, again and still

  1. Thanks so much for this. A wonderful post and a wonderful thinking through of what reading can me to us.

    Also, I’m thrilled to have some of these recommendations.

  2. Hey Sarah–it’s great to see you blogging again, too. I’m so sorry to hear about your parents. You (we) seem too young to have endured those losses.

    I have the SAME feelings about many of the books on your impressively long list here–Donna Tartt, Margaret Atwood (yes, an obvs. harangue!), Adelle Waldman, and Gillian Flynn. I’ve just recently met Deb Harkness & now with your recommendation am interested in reading her novels. (She’s kind of a legend among historians, as you might guess!)

    See you at the 25th? I will be there. I hope you’ll consider it if you haven’t yet already.

    1. 25?! Maybe I will–it’d be lovely to see you. Deb Harkness’s books are fun, especially if you’re a historian of the period–so many little insider tidbits!

    2. I loved “A Discovery of Witches” with a fierce and burning adoration. Still do.

      Sarah, this was a beautiful and significant post that highlights how reading involves our lives on the most elemental level. I’m glad that you’ve found your way back into reading and particularly that you explained that in this post. Thanks for sharing your list from 2014 and your thoughts on all of the books, too!

  3. Loved this post. So much of what you said really resonated with me. I remember when my father died (the last of my parents to die, and he died suddenly) I was partway through reading “For whom the bell tolls”, I was unable to finish it, and 12 years on still find myself unable to read it.

    When younger I felt you always had to finish a book, I now think like you that life’s too short, and a lot more fun if the “serious” novels are interspersed with light. In my case a fair chunk of crime fiction, or not too heavy short stories.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. I’m glad it resonated with you. I just found English, August on my bookshelf, bookmark still in place. I can’t get rid of it, but like you, I can’t finish it either. Maybe someday, but not yet.

  4. I liked Year of the Flood best from that trilogy as well. The world creation was so rich and I liked how she satirized the Gardeners while simultaneously showing how they created a nurturing environment for Ren under almost impossible circumstances.

    My book club might be reading Infinite Jest this spring– we haven’t voted yet but it’s on the short list and it has partisans. I’m a little afraid of it, but this gives me more confidence to tackle it, if we end up reading it.

    1. I really love it, as you can tell. There are all these guides out there on how to read it–taking notes, keeping maps and character trees–but I think the best way is just to roll with it and not be afraid of missing details. And yes to your description of Year of the Flood! It had a nuance the others didn’t.

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