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A Lonely Business

Remember the sense of discovery as a young person, reading one book after another? Do you ever wish books could affect you in that way again? So now let's say you're a prominent English professor and author of several books of your own. You have spent much of your life illuminating literaure for others. One could say you have reading down. Then you are struck by an illness that robs you of most of the things you enjoyed in a very active life. Is it any wonder that Jane Tompkins—to whom this very chain of events happened—found herself turning to books? What may be surprising, however, is that this immersion resulted in a major breakthrough. Tompkins read authors she'd never dreamed of reading, one book leading to the next, and truly saw how the wisdom those books had to impart could be applied to her own life. As the following excerpt helps demonstrate, Tompkins' Reading through the Night is a moving memoir, a celebration of reading, and probably the most perfect book-club book to come along in a while. 

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I had been reading all my life—as a child on summer vacations, as a student, and as a literature professor—but until I got sick and had to read for hours at a time to make the day go by, I never knew what reading could be. I read while I rested because it was all I could do. My life felt useless, my sense of self-worth was barely detectable. Then one day a stranger who subsequently became a friend gave me a book that captivated me. I couldn’t get it out of my head; it was if I’d been kidnapped. I’m an enthusiast where books are concerned, but this book—Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s account of his thirty-year friendship with V. S. Naipaul—gripped me in a way few books had ever done. There was no reason for it, since I’d had no interest in either author. I was retired, sick, and unable to work; I hadn’t written anything in a long time, but I sat down at my computer and started writing, determined to find out what was going on.

The going was slow. I went down blind alleys and came up with answers that weren’t the real thing. I read a lot of Naipaul, I read more Theroux, I went back to Sir Vidia’s Shadow, probing deeper. One day, I reread a chapter where the two men have lunch in a London restaurant; it was exquisitely painful. Naipaul insults and exploits Theroux, subtly, then blatantly. Something about the way I felt when I read this scene seemed awfully familiar. Finally, it came to me. These feelings mirrored the way I felt when my husband spoke to me in a certain way, and that wasn’t all. They also reflected how my mother had sometimes made me feel: ashamed, hurt, angry, and impotent. The revelation cast light in two directions. It let me see clearly for the first time a behavior pattern that had controlled my reactions to people my entire life, and it showed me that the spell Sir Vidia’s Shadow had put me under came less from the book itself than from my own experience. That realization opened the door to a new way of reading.

Now, as I read Naipaul and Theroux, incidents from my own life began to appear; pieces of my past offered themselves unbidden. Instead of trying to analyze what the authors had written, I started to analyze the material their writing had unearthed. I began to make connections between parts of my life I’d not made before, stumbled on patterns I’d never noticed. It occurred to me that if the works of Naipaul and Theroux could have this effect, surely other books could, too. Branching out, I read what was around the house—literary criticism, journalism, contemporary novels, detective fiction—and sure enough, while the feelings these books evoked were different, the structure of the experience was the same. Just as before, by observing my reactions to what I read, I saw things about myself I didn’t want to see—envy, a desire for fame, assumptions of moral superiority that were completely unfounded. Under the pressure of remembered incidents from my past, criticisms I’d started to formulate about the authors I was reading turned to dust.

From time to time, I paused to speculate on the ways reading had impacted my life—I’d started out using it as a refuge and as a vicarious form of adventure, then it metamorphosed into professional capital and a source of creativity. And now it had become a path of self-discovery. Not an easy path, but a transformative one. I went from book to book, and from memory to memory, and thus did the night of my illness yield up its treasure, bringing me face to face with who I was. 

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Not long ago, I couldn’t sleep because of a book I was reading before I went to bed. It was a travel memoir by Alden Jones called The Blind Masseuse. It took me back to my junior year abroad in Italy. I was nineteen and wanted to get away and meet the world on my own. Jones’s book brought back the taste of a peach I ate just after docking at Naples. Our group was seated in a noisy, open-air restaurant, I was sleep deprived (I’d stayed up all night talking to an enchanting man) and anxious about everything: being in a foreign country for the first time, being with people I didn’t know (there was a joke going around the table that I wasn’t in on)—but the peach—the peach was fat, round, beautiful, juicy, and delicious. When I bit into it the juice ran down my chin. The taste enveloped me; it let me know there was a new world here for the tasting. All I had to do was open my mouth.

The Blind Masseuse reintroduced me to the pleasures of travel as adventure, and in so doing gave me a shot of energy that took days to wear off. For many years I’d had a little-understood illness called myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME, for short), known until recently as chronic fatigue syndrome. Since fatigue, sore throats, and a low energy level had limited my ability to move around the world at will, the chance to visit exotic locales with a person whom I felt comfortable with gave me something I needed: new experiences and a lessening of loneliness. Alden Jones went to places I’d never been, and I liked her style.

Her story starts in New York, where she worked at a publishing company after graduating from college. But the thought of becoming like her boss and staring at the same view every day, year after year, stuck in her craw. So when he objected to her going out for morning coffee one day, she quit and booked a ticket for Cochabamba, Bolivia. She was my kind of girl. Jones ends up traveling around the world: Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cuba, Cambodia, Burma, Italy, and Egypt. She leads student groups on educational trips, teaches English in Latin America, and travels on her own. If you exclude stomach trouble, nothing gut-wrenching or dramatic happens to her in any of these places, yet I read quickly and eagerly. Jones had a knack for putting me right there with her, feeling the sting and fizz of a cold Coca-Cola on a hot day, or the pangs of a bad stomach ache. I needed this kind of thing: it was vicarious, but it was real. And I liked the way she reflected on what she saw.

On her first day in Bolivia, she’s pelted with gravel and mango pits by three women protest marchers who laughed at her when she shouted “Why?” Later, she learned that these were Bolivian farmers demonstrating against their own government for cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, whose policies had taken away their livelihood—growing coca. Jones had been standing in front of the one store in town that hadn’t closed in solidarity with the march. Jones knew nothing about any of this because she was in the habit of waiting to read about the countries she visited until after returning home. As she puts it, “I preferred to go in more or less blind, become curious about things as I observed them.” Her ignorance means she has no preconceived ideas about what her experience will be like, but also no knowledge that might have kept her out of situations where people threw stones at her. In any case, the incident forces her to see that she’s not the person she wishes she were—an activist who has come to Bolivia to fight injustice—but “a cerebral American, torn between a life of prestigious office jobs and the life of a vagabond who wanders into foreign lands with her eyes wide open.” I devoured the book.

What appealed to me most was the experience of being young again, able to move around the world at will and feel the texture of strange things on my skin. Alden is an idealist—she wants to do good and help people—but even more she wants to see who they are, put herself in a position that allows her to sense what it’s like to be them, not stand aloof judging and analyzing. She wants to plunge in and absorb things through her senses, get her hands dirty, be what Henry James called “one of the people on whom nothing is ever lost.” This is the kind of person I’d wanted to be, too. Being with Alden woke me up and energized me; it made me feel that I might have enough energy to do things I hadn’t done for a long time. The next thing I knew I was up and on the living room sofa writing down my reactions to the book.

It was illness that made me aware how hungry I was for the kind of experience I was getting from The Blind Masseuse. The spaciousness that illness created in my life, and the neediness, sensitized me to the emotions one feels as a reader but doesn’t necessarily own up to, making me  conscious of the way a book can pump you up or bring you down, even change your outlook on life, depending on the feelings it triggers. When I received the gift of Sir Vidia’s Shadow, I had time, time to find out why the book had acquired such a hold on me. As I began to catch glimpses of parallels between what I was reading and my own history, I became aware of the processes that go on beneath the level of consciousness when one reads. As Diana Athill, who was Naipaul’s editor, observes in her memoir Somewhere towards the End: “Underneath, or alongside a reader’s conscious response to a text, whatever is needy in him is taking in whatever the text offers to assuage that need.” By the time I came across The Blind Masseuse, I was able to touch down into the subterranean current of need that caused me to respond so strongly to Alden Jones’s adventures. And it revealed to me that reading had played a much more important role in my life than I’d ever imagined.

If this were a piece of academic writing it might be called a phenomenology of reading, but it isn’t written with reference to philosophy or literary criticism and has no claim to being a theory. I came to the works of Naipaul, Theroux, and other writers at first to see what they could tell me about these authors as human beings, and finally to answer questions which are really about myself. Sometimes I think of this book as being like the story of Theseus following Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth, or of the archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann digging for Troy. But these analogies are too high-flown. I’m more like a person with a flashlight, who has been groping around in a dusty basement or a cobwebbed attic, shining a light into obscure places and hoping to find something significant, the answer to a mystery perhaps. The insights I arrive at don’t follow a plan or constitute an argument; I describe them as they present themselves, like features of a landscape emerging in the course of a long walk. This chapter sets the stage for that journey, mapping some of the discoveries I made about the role reading has played for me—as a giver and taker of energy, as a connection to another person’s inner life, and as a cause of change in my own.

Reading through the Night is available now.

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