I Used to be a Reader

This is a hard thing for a writer to say:

I used to read.

I used to read voraciously. I carried books with me wherever I went. I slept with them under my pillow.

I read three or more books at a time, and knew what page number I was on in each of them.

When I found a writer I loved, I inhaled EVERYTHING they’d ever written. I spent hours in bookstores. I lived in the library.

Then two things happened. I had babies and I graduated with a degree in literature.

After college, I didn’t read anything but non-fiction for a full two years. I was burned out. Proust will do that to you.

I did still read a lot of poetry and history. I read to research my novels. And of course I memorized Go Dog Go, Skippy Jon Jones, and Sandra Boynton’s entire canon, (which I highly recommend).

But outside of an occasional audio-book, I almost quit reading novels altogether.

It’s hard to read when you’re a mom.

Every book was like the leftover, half-finished bagel you shove in your mouth between jumping out of the shower and rodeo-ing the kids into the car. When I did get to read, I read without tasting. Without digesting.

To be a writer without reading is like breathing without inhaling. It makes your writing dizzy and tight. Blue-faced.

To be a writer without reading is like breathing without inhaling. It makes your writing dizzy and tight. Blue-faced.

But today, ten years and two days after learning I was pregnant with my first child, I took my youngest child to kindergarten, hugged her, kissed her, hugged her again, cried a little, and turned to find myself facing a tiny ocean of time.

Time to myself.

I’ve had today marked for a few months as the day I’m going to start working on my novel again. But as it got closer and closer, a different excitement overshadowed it.

I’m going to read.

I’m going to read Literature. With a capital L.

I’m going to read big, fat, difficult books.

I’m going to read skinny, compact, difficult books.

I’m going to read my old favorites – Atwood, Steinbeck, Morrison, Camus, Bradbury, Allende.

I’m going to read new authors.

I’m going to read authors I’ve never even heard of.

I’m going to read poetry and plays.

I’m going to read Shakespeare again. Shakespeare! Out loud! For fun!

I’m going to read in public and ignore people.

I’m going to read in private and ignore my phone.

I might even try to tackle Moby Dick for the umpteenth time.

I went to a bookstore today by myself. I spent a lot of time selecting the first three books for my bibliophile bacchanal. Three books made of paper and ink.

They smell terrific.

If you need me, I’ll be in my room.

P.S. Don’t need me.


I Used to be a Reader

Book narrative and screen narrative

Have you read the short story The Veldt by Ray Bradbury?

A mother and father want their children to be happy. So they give them a nursery.

The nursery is made up of screens. In these screens, the children can explore and create the world around them, without ever leaving the house. The screens manifest the will of the children.

When the children become disobedient, the parents decide to unplug. The kids don’t approve.

It doesn’t end well for Mom and Dad.

The Veldt was a shudder-worthy read in 1950. In 2014, it’s downright blood-chilling.

I can’t think about the page and the screen without dragging Bradbury out and propping him in the corner. He’s the Grand Poombah of this discussion.

Like many great Sci-Fi writers, Bradbury had a love/hate relationship with technology. He adored movies. He wrote for movies and television. But in his work, screens are universally regarded with a Luddite’s foreboding.

Because, while Bradbury revered movies, the written word was sacred.

This isn’t a concept unique to Bradbury. It’s the cultural vestige of the era when books, by their rarity, really were sacred objects.

For a hundred years, the screen borrowed gravitas from books by paying homage to the page narrative. How many early Disney films start with a storybook flipping open?

Seeing the movie was a lesser form of experiencing narrative. Reading the book represented the true narrative experience. The real story.

That model has changed.

The book as a sacred fetish reached its extinction-burst in the late-80s/early-90s, which swarmed with movies (particularly for children) where the book was revered: The Never-Ending Story. The Princess Bride. The Labyrinth. Beauty and the Beast.

But to children now, screen narrative is just as valid as page narrative.

For those of us raised on page narrative, the new primacy of screen narrative can be uncomfortable. I still read the books to my daughters before we watch the movie. I’m a bibliophile who wants to raise bibliophiles.

But I feel like Tevya.


There is still plenty of reading going on, both on page and screen. Though an alarming portion of it is cross-marketed, franchise adver-tainment.

I’ve had moments when my chosen creative activity feels as quaint and useless as calligraphy or collecting muzzle-loading muskets.

But I’m not worried about our cultural unbooking. I don’t believe that all people should be readers. I don’t believe people should be shamed for not being readers.

Yes, everyone should learn to read and have access to books, etc.

But when I hear a statistic that, for example, the average high school student graduates and never gives another thought to F. Scott Fitzgerald, that’s a-okay by me. I don’t give a shit about racquetball. I can’t imagine living in a world where everyone thought I should, no matter how edifying racquetball might be.

The reason I don’t care if Americans read for fun is twofold:

First, all humans, whether they read or not, and regardless of any other factor in their lives have a deep, profound, and unswerving need for stories.

Stories are meaning. They are morality. They are the religion of common human experience. Where and how my fellow Americans get their narrative gratification is no more my business than where or how they get their sexual gratification. To each his own.

Second, American culture is rife with excellent narrative, some of it occurring in the most unliterary of places. Graphic novels, fanfic, movies, or even – gasp! – television. Serious narrative is alive and well in the oral tradition from whence it sprung.

More power to it. The oral tradition has a history backing it that the novel, at its peak, could never have hoped to rival in the long run.

Step back a few miles. Examine the book from a distance.

For most of human history, most people didn’t or couldn’t read. But narrative flourished. Plays. Poetry. Stories. Songs.

Language is fluid. Narrative is fluid.

The idea that a story has one right iteration that should be made static and preserved for all time is only a few hundred years old.

In the scope of human history, our concept of page-narrative is the aberration. Not the norm.

Yet books have always thrived. They have always been birthed by book-lovers into the hands of book-lovers.

The book has slipped from its temporary throne to retake its place among the many and varied forms of narrative.

We can mourn or we can teach our children to seek out stories that are moral and meaningful, no matter what the medium.

We stand as parents in the Veldt. Uncertain what monsters our children might create with the technology we’ve given them.

We are fearful their stories will dismember our gods. Rest assured they will. Good narrative always does.

Book narrative and screen narrative

Yeah, But It’s Not Nearly As Good as the Book

I’m re-reading Fahrenheit 451 for the  first time in a few years.

Last time I read it,  I realized that one of my favorite lines from the movie is not in the book: “You’re not living. You’re just killing time.”

Likewise, there’s a lot about the book that I tend to think is in the movie, but which actually is not. The Hound for example. And Faber. Also, I always think of Mildred as Mildred. Never Linda.

Still, I love the movie. Maybe because I was raised on it. Maybe because the technology of the time forced an emotionally eloquent simplicity into the story, that beautifully echos Bradbury’s poetic writing.

We so often expect the movie to fall short of the book, that we don’t often mention the movies that are as good (if different) than the book they’re based on or that exceed the book in greatness.

Here’s my list of movie adaptations that live up to their books:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

The Last  of The Mohicans

The Great Gatsby (1974)

Fahrenheit 451

The Wizard of Oz

Gone With the Wind

The Princess Bride

A Clockwork Orange

The Shawshank Redemption

The Maltese Falcon

The Shining

A Muppet Christmas Carol


What would you add?

Yeah, But It’s Not Nearly As Good as the Book