Tuesday, April 10, 2007
living without fiction
I don't read novels anymore. Or at least only rarely. For years now it's been biographies, autobiographies, essays, personal histories, journals, ethical reflections and the like. But I used to live on fiction. As a little girl I would stay up late into the night reading--a word or two at a time--by the lit control dial on my electric blanket. Sometimes a shaft of moonlight from the window would help--needless to say, I now wear glasses.
I read anything that began well enough to get me through the first ten pages--Moby Dick, the Book of Revelation, Pinkwater's The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. I even made a good attempt at Plato's Republic. We didn't have a television at home so the weekly trip to the public library was well anticipated. We were allowed five books a week, and in my opinion far too few to get me through until next Saturday.
My parents, perhaps troubled by my unabashed reading of such "grown-up" fiction as Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, imposed the rule that library books had to come from the "juvenile" section of the library. In fifth or sixth grade I began to venture out of juvenile section and creep around the "adult" stacks, careful to avoid my father, who was more likely than not perusing a boring book on woodworking or wildflowers. Lucky for me his no-nonsense books were shelved at a safe distance from the juicy fiction aisles I was interested in. I would carefully select one or two books from the "adult" section and hide them under my other books. This was how I read Gone with the Wind, the rather trashy North and South trilogy, as well as glossy history books documenting the Roman Empire--on which I was nursing a girlish crush.
My mother made it known that I was too young to read certain books we had on the shelves at home, such as Brontë's Wuthering Heights. Which of course only ensured it was read in the dead of night by electric blanket light. And, as you can imagine, the wailing sobs of Catherine's ghost were only more bone-chilling in my darkened childhood bedroom.
Sooner or later my parents gave up on controlling my reading. Our little home-schooled, wood-burning, vegetable-growing Christian family was beginning to betray signs of disillusion, and what I read became less important. In fact, as family life became tense, I dug further down into my books. And I passed the reading bug onto my younger brother. One my fondest childhood memories is of us under layers of quilts in our cold, wood-heated home, reading Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.
But as I sit here, writing on my laptop in well-lit bed far from my childhood home, my novels pile up unread. I crave stories of the real. For example, Luke's amusing Oedipal misbehavior, Jenny's attempts to free grieving balloons from trees, or (my current book) an interpretive history entitled Lincoln's Melancholy. I want to read the mass of lives considered, suffered, hammered-out, well lived: I'm just plumb fictioned out.