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Reading through the Night

Jane Tompkins

BUY Cloth · 248 pp. · 5.5 × 8.5 · ISBN 9780813941592 · $27.95 · Sep 2018
BUY Ebook · 248 pp. · ISBN 9780813941608 · $19.95 · Sep 2018
BUY Paper · 248 pp. · 5.5 × 8.5 · ISBN 9780813944517 · $19.95 · May 2020

Jane Tompkins, a renowned literature professor and award-winning author, thought she knew what reading was until, struck by a debilitating illness, she finds herself reading day and night because it is all she can do. A lifelong lover of books, she realizes for the first time that if you pay close attention to your reactions as you read, literature can become a path of self-discovery.

Tompkins’s inner journey begins when she becomes captivated unexpectedly by an account of friendship between two writers to whom she’d given little thought, Paul Theroux and V. S. Naipaul. Theroux’s memoir launches her on a path of introspection that stretches back to the first weeks of her life in a Bronx hospital, and forward to her relationship with her mother and the structure of her present marriage. Her reading experience, intensified by the feelings of powerlessness and loss of self that come with chronic illness, expands to include writers such as Henning Mankell and Ann Patchett, Alain de Botton, Elena Ferrante, and Anthony Trollope. As she makes her way through their books, she recognizes herself in them, stumbling across patterns of feeling and behavior that have ruled her without her knowing it—envy, a desire for fame, fear of confronting the people she loves, a longing for communion.

The reader, along with Tompkins, comes to the realization that literature can be not only a source of information and entertainment, not only a balm and a refuge, but also a key to unlocking long-forgotten memories that lead to a new understanding of one’s life.


Tompkins’ book has something of the charge of a detective story, as she moves from book to book in search of herself and her past. Her account of illness has the shape of a novel. … She is a direct and generous narrator. ‘The thing is not to be afraid,’ she writes. ‘When a book upsets or troubles you, you need to find out why.’

The Times Literary Supplement

A disarmingly intimate chronicle of reading as self-discovery.


Reading Through the Night is a perfect book for anyone who believes literature should amount to more than diversion and fodder for term papers.... Tompkins becomes our own suffering servant, though perhaps less a [Kurt] Wallander than a bedridden Alice James, nearly forgotten in the shadow of celebrated men, but scribbling all the while to produce something equally essential, equally profound.

San Francisco Chronicle

A woman lies in bed, reading. She isn’t well, and some days reading is all she can do. As she reads she comes to understand a lot about herself—her upbringing, her fears and her envy, her privileges, her life’s steps and missteps. She is not reading for culture or academic privilege. She is reading to save her life. I loved reading with Tompkins as she lingers over books by Naipaul, Theroux, Dickinson, and Patchett and lets their stories open windows of all kinds. Every book group in the country should be reading Reading through the Night, for the conversations it will provoke, for the reading it will inspire, and for its captivating wisdom and grace.

Alice Kaplan, author of Looking for "The Stranger": Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic

A surprising, ambitious memoir that raises important questions about what it is that we are doing when we read. Through a series of literary adventures Tompkins shares a journey to new self-knowledge. Her story will engage all book lovers for whom reading is a lifeline.

Nancy K. Miller, the Graduate Center, CUNY, author of Breathless: An American Girl in Paris

Reading through the Night is a vital manifesto on the importance of reading. It is not simply a reminder that literature can enrich us; it is a statement about the ability to live a rich and fulfilling life of the mind even when the body betrays us. Jane Tompkins guides us through what might have been a devastating loss—a disease that deprives her of her basic physical abilities—but instead becomes a new way of experiencing the world, and understanding her personal experience in the world, through a closer and more attentive relationship with words on the page. I have a profoundly altered appreciation for what literature offers us after reading this memoir.

Alden Jones, author of The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler's Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia

Some of the most memorable passages of the book focus on marriage: first those of Naipaul and Theroux, and then Tompkins’s own. (Her husband is the famous literary critic Stanley Fish.) Sheleads readers into multiple layers of meaning of love and forgiveness as perspectives shift, new memories appear, and images expand, illustrating the power of one large story that overcomes, or at least enlightens, a host of smaller and meaner ones.

Christian Century

The title Reading Through the Night alludes to the sleepless hours that accompany the chronic fatigue from which Tompkins has long suffered, and also calls up for me the iconic image of the desolate David Copperfield, "sitting on my bed, reading as if for life." There's no "as if" about it: you read for life.

Critical Inquiry

About the Author(s): 

Jane Tompkins is a teacher and scholar known for her work on popular women’s novels of the American nineteenth century. Her book on Western novels and films, West of Everything, won a prize from the American Popular Culture Association, and her memoir of teaching and learning, A Life in School, received an award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. She has lectured and given workshops all over the United States and now lives in New York City, the Catskill Mountains, and South Florida.

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