Less "readers," more reading
I grew up and taught myself to be a reader, despite not really seeing anyone else read in a way that made me feel like casual reading was something I had the attention span for. When I was a sophomore or junior, a professor asked us to raise our hands if we saw our parents reading as children. I didn’t raise my hand, but most people did, which the professor used to illustrate the point that people who read have had the great privilege of seeing their family read, so that is why they read.
I remember finally falling in love with reading, late: I was 21 years old, a senior in college, almost done with an English major (I know, but it’s true), reading a page-long list of books that English majors were told to read in completion to prepare for “comps,” or comprehensive exams. Those exams are kind of old-fashioned—and unfair, as there was barely a single title on the reading list that I’d read in a class thus far—but it was an incredibly exciting assignment for me. A list of books just to read; no immediate pressure to say something smart in the class the next day; no prescribed way to report on my findings. Just me, reading however I wanted to read, building context and developed a meaning of literature in my brain. (Here’s the whole list if you want to look/critique.)
I got into a groove, going down the list, making notes and developing a theory of how published writing has progressed through time alongside American culture.
When I got down into “American 20th century,” I read Beloved—in a heat, like I’d never read a book before. That was the first time I got what books were for, I felt. (Staying up late to finish Boxcar Children mysteries in the fifth grade didn’t quite reach the same bodily depth.)
Now, I read a lot, and if a book is good enough, I can fall into it the way I did with Beloved. Most books, of course, aren’t close to that good. And I read books that I know I won’t experience and feel the way I felt Beloved, because I want to learn from current nonfiction, or I want to see what fiction other people are reading and loving and recommending, or I liked the writer’s other books.
Lately I’ve read a lot of books out of that kind of curiosity and/or with my special little book club, and I have been quite surprised to find how much I love the long, multi-generational family novels—including, to my grand surprise, Jonathan Franzen.
Here’s the roundup:
On Beauty by Zadie Smith has a title that is super thematic and not a clue at all to the nature of the book: modern husband and wife, children, [conservatism in] academia, infidelity, expatriates, race, American and British nationality, class, being a college student, being cheated on, friendship.
Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen’s newer novel: a preacher, his wife, their kids, everyone’s backstory and memories, the youth group, all in the sixties.
Min Jin Lee’s oft-recommended Pachinko, which took me to Korea and then Japan and kept me there for most of the 20th century: four generations of family, hunger, subsisting, racism, social and political change, sex slavery, Japan’s colonization of Korea, Korean culture, Christianity in Korean culture, the repression of women, expatriates, making money, making food…I could go on and on with this one.
They all have these central male characters going through late-in-life (ish) crises and seeking out the company of women or girls they shouldn’t. But what’s actually interesting in all of them is the women, of course, and the ongoingness of families. Who survives and who doesn’t. All the types of people there are, the whole enneagram wheel. And how very much I learned about history from Pachinko.