Here’s the description of a reader who found escape and enlightenment simultaneously in reading: from Greg Bottoms' book Angelhead, a rather disturbing memoir of his brother’s schizophrenia:
At some point – I can’t pinpoint exactly when – I realized that books made sense of the worst things, even if they seemed stunted and dark, offering nothing but a crippled epiphany. These were the ones I gravitated toward then: Poe, Dostoevsky – The Tell-Tale Heart and White Nights are, to me, schizophrenic classics – and the American pulp novelists of mid-century. I began reading all the time, endlessly, book after book, always looking to find the grand tragedy rendered with meaning-the more transgressive, the more violent, the better because by the middle of the book I wanted to see how this mess would be fixed, how a life, even a sad, broken, imaginary life, could be saved. I started to believe-and I still believe-that I could somehow save myself with a story, and even though I couldn’t save anyone else, I could try to understand them, attempt to grant them at least that, and perhaps it is in this, this attempt to understand, that a person is truly saved . . . I am not exaggerating when I say books saved my life; or put another way, books saved my mind and helped me to understand my life. (104-6)
~ * ~☞ In the following essay Margaret Atwood describes her years of growing up reading books. We also get a glimpse of her favourites.
THE PLEASURE OF READING
by Margaret E. Atwood
I learned to read before I started school. My mother claims I taught myself because she refused to read comics to me. Probably my older brother helped: he was writing comic books himself, and may have needed an audience.
In any case, the first books I can remember were a scribbled-over copy of Mother Goose and several Beatrix Potters, from her Dark Period (the ones with knives, cannibalistic foxes, and stolen babies in them). Then came the complete, unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which my parents ordered by mail, unaware that it would contain so many red-hot shoes, barrels full of nails, and mangled bodies. This was in the 1940s, just after the war. It was becoming the fashion, then, to rewrite fairy tales, removing anything too bloodthirsty and prettying up the endings, and my parents were worried that all the skeletons and gouged-out eyes in Grimm’s would warp my mind. Perhaps they did, although Bruno Bettelheim has since claimed that this sort of thing was good for me. In any case I devoured these stories, and a number of them have been with me ever since.
Shortly after this I began to read everything I could get my hands on. At that time my family was spending a lot of time in the northern Canadian bush, where there were no movie theatres and where even radio was unreliable: reading was it. The school readers, the notorious milk-and-water Dick and Jane series, did not have much to offer me after Grimm’s. See Jane Run, indeed. Instead I read comic books and the backs of cereal boxes. I tried ‘girls’ books’ — The Bobbsey Twins by Laura Lee Hope, The Curlytops series by Howard Garis, Cherry Ames, Junior Nurse — but they weren’t much competition for Batman or for red-hot iron shoes. ( Anne of Green Gables was an exception; that one I loved.) I made my way through the standard children’s classics, some of which I’d already heard, read out loud by my mother — The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, the Alice books, Treasure Island. Gulliver’ s Travels is not really a children’s book, but was considered one because of the giants, so I read that too.
I read Canadian animal stories — those by Sir Charles G. D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, for instance — in which the animals always ended up dead. Such books appeared regularly at Christmas — adults seemed to think that any book about animals was a children’s book — and I would snivel my way through the trapped, shot and gnawed corpses of the various rabbits, grouse, foxes and wolves that littered their pages, overdosing on chocolates. I read Orwell’s Animal Farm, thinking that it too was a story about animals, and was seriously upset by the death of the horse.
By this time I was about ten or eleven, and I’d begun dipping into the adult shelves. I can recall with great clarity the Dell pocket-book mysteries, the ones with the map of the crime scene on the back and the eye in a keyhole on the front, along with the lurid picture of the strangled blonde in the red strapless gown. One mystery in particular stands out: the murder was done by tying the victim to a tree, naked, during mosquito season. (Living where I did, I found this highly plausible.) I read a junky science-fiction magazine left behind by a guest, and vividly remember a story in which the beautiful women of Planet X hunt men down, paralyse them with a bite on the neck, and lay eggs on them like spiders. I used to drag the really dubious books off into corners, like dogs with bones, where no one would see me reading them.
I resorted to flashlights under the covers. I knew good trash when I saw it. I don’t think these books influenced my writing, but they certainly influenced my reading. Around this time too I read the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe, which some fool had put in the school library on the assumption that anything without sex in it was suitable for young minds. This experience disturbed me in a way that Grimm’s Fairy Tales had not, possibly because Poe is obsessive about detail and sets out to horrify. I had nightmares about decaying or being buried alive, but this did not stop me from reading on.
Attracted by the beautiful woodcuts of whales in our edition, I read Melville’s Moby-Dick, again expecting animals. I skipped the parts about people; I identified with the whale, and was not at all sad when it wrecked the whaler and drowned most of the crew and got away at the end. After all those trapped wolves and poisoned foxes, it was about time for an animal to come out on top.
When I hit high school, I read Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, and developed what was, in those days before rock stars, a standard passion for Mr Darcy and Heathcliff. (Luckily I did not at that time know any bad-tempered, impolite and darkly brooding young men; otherwise I might have run off with them.) These reading choices were approved of by adults, who liked anything called a classic. Other reading choices were not. In grade nine, for instance, I joined a paperback book club which was in the business of parting teenagers from their allowances, and received a satisfying helping of verbal trash through the mail every month. Donovan’s Brain stands out: it was about an overgrown and demented brain which was being kept alive in a glass jar by scientists — a brain which was trying to take over the world. In addition to colouring my view of politicians, this prepared me for the reading of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, later on.
I discovered the cellar. (By this time we were living in Toronto, and had one.) My parents had two vices which I have inherited — they bought a lot of books, and they found it difficult to throw any of them out. The cellar was lined with bookshelves, and I used to go down there and browse among the books, while eating snacks filched from the kitchen — crackers thickly spread with peanut butter and honey, dates prised off the block of them used for baking, handfuls of raisins, and — one of my favourites — lime jelly powder. The whole experience felt like a delicious escape, and my eclectic eating habits complemented what I was reading, which ranged from scientific textbooks on ants and spiders — my father was an entomologist — to H. G. Wells’s history of almost everything, to the romances of Walter Scott, to old copies of National Geographic, to the theatrical murders of Ngaio Marsh. This is where I came across Churchill’s history of the Second World War, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Arthur Koestler’s Darkness At Noon — books which did, much later, actually have an influence on something I wrote myself, as The Handmaid’ s Tale emerged from the same fascination with history and the structure of totalitarian regimes.
All of this took place quite apart from school. At school I was practical, and saw myself as someone who would eventually have a serious job of some kind. The drawback to this was that there were only five careers listed for women in the Guidance textbook: home economist, nurse, teacher, airline stewardess, and secretary. Home economists got paid the most, but I was not good at zippers. This was depressing. I read more.
In English, we were studying a Shakespeare play a year, a good deal of Thomas Hardy and some George Eliot, and a lot of poetry, most of it by the romantics and the Victorians. Writing — unlike reading — appeared to be something that had been done some time ago, and very far away. In those days the Canadian high school curriculum had not yet discovered either modern poetry or Canada itself; ‘Canadian writer’ seemed to be a contradiction in terms; and when I realized at the age of sixteen that writing was what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, nobody was more surprised than I was.
What do I enjoy reading today? It’s hard to say; it varies from day to day. From where I’m writing at this desk I can see, deposited around the floor of the room, eighteen separate piles or nests of books. They aren’t all there for purposes of enjoyment — some of them are for work — but, starting from left to right, the things on the tops of the piles are: Virago’s catalogue of new books; Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth; a newsletter about health; a book on the origins of humanity; a Canadian literary magazine called Paragraph; Ethel Wilson’s Hetty Dorval; a dictionary of French synonyms; two paperback murder mysteries, one by P. D. James, one by Robert Barnard; Writing the Circle, an anthology of Native (Indian, Inuit or Eskimo) women writers; Kurt Vonnegut’s new novel, Hocus Pocus; a book on wind energy in Denmark — well, you get the idea. Every once in a while I root through the piles, picking out something in them I haven’t yet read, shuffling them around, trying to figure out where to file the books in the various already overcrowded bookcases. Or I add to the piles, or growl over them, protecting them from being tidied up, or haul something off to another location. I read in bed — what a luxury! — or on aeroplanes, where the phone can never ring; or in the bathtub, or in the kitchen. It’s still a random process, and I still love it.
My favourite books
I dislike lists of top ten favourite books, because they don’t give you enough room. Novels? Poetry? Non-fiction? Do collected works count? Does the Bible? Does The Joy of Cooking?
But here are five novels I’ve read recently and enjoyed a lot. They have not all been written recently; it’s just that I did not get around to them at the time: Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet; Louise Erdrich, The Beet Queen; Toni Morrison, Beloved; Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart; Nawar El Sadawi, The Fall of the Imam.
And here are five Canadian novels I’ve read and reread over the years: Anne Hébert, Kamouraska; Alice Munro, The Lives of Girls and Women; Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel; Robertson Davies, Fifth Business; Timothy Findley, The Wars.
(Bloomsbury India’s The Pleasure of Reading, from which the essay has been excerpted, can be bought here)