I love to read. Not “like,” mind you; “love.” Reading informs me; relaxes me; restores me. It may well be that reading is just another form of escapism, but what’s wrong with that? These days, a little escapism can go a long way.
I’m a supine reader. Chairs are good for the short-haul, but if I really want to take off and go around the world, nothing beats the couch. Except the hammock (in summer) or maybe my bed. At the end of a long day—or, at this time of year, a short day—what’s better than crawling under the covers with a good book? My wife agrees; she says it keeps my hands occupied.
I can’t pinpoint when this reading habit began. I remember childhood stories but I can’t quite see who is telling them to me. I still have some childhood books on my shelves: “Winnie-the-Pooh” (all four books in the series, of course), The Velveteen Rabbit, and a large format edition of a picture book about a little wooden Indian in a canoe named “Paddle to the Sea.” A boy places his toy carving on a frozen hilltop in Minnesota and as spring finally reaches the northland, the snow melts and the tiny canoe slips into a stream that empties into Lake Superior and eventually makes its way into the Mississippi River where it bobs along until it finally reaches the sea. There is a new picture on every page and it was my game of delight to find little Paddle in each one. It never got old. (Actually, come to think of it, that book is no longer on my shelf; my grandson has it.)
In school, I read what I had to read, but with a few exceptions, I had yet to find true love in reading. Girls always seemed to get in the way. One of my great collegiate regrets is that for a survey course on 20th Century American Literature taught by a very popular professor, I finessed my way through the syllabus by reading the cliff notes version of great books by wondrous writers. The final exam consisted of very specific questions about each book we “read.” I failed the exam and spent the next summer making up the credit. My father was not pleased.
But I finally awoke to the joy of reading when I was in the Peace Corps. There are long, dark, cold nights in the high desert of Tunisia and there wasn’t much to do in my small village. So, I read by lamplight. I worked my way through the work of Nicos Kazantzakis; “Zorba the Greek” was fun but “The Last Temptation of Christ” pushed me to higher ground. I explored Arabia with T.E. Lawrence and Wilfred Thesiger. I plowed through Shakespeare and even the Bible, marathons of shear accomplishment more than pleasure. But with each word, each paragraph and page, each new story and plot, I was accumulating a treasure chest of vocabulary, voice, and yes, even knowledge. Now, all those late-into-the-night books are the dividend accounts from which I can draw (tax free!) as a writer.
These days, I tend to choose works of fiction except when David McCullough comes out with a new history or Malcolm Gladwell opens up a new perspective on the world by talking to strangers. I like to think I’ve discovered wonderful new writers like Amor Towles (“A Gentleman in Moscow”), Delia Owens (“Where the Crawdads Sing,”) or, most recently, Téa Obreht (“Inland”), but I have a feeling that a few million other readers can also lay claim to these new voices. It doesn’t really matter who discovers good new authors, I guess; good writing will eventually find its way into the light.
I’m thankful for many things in my life, but at or near the top of the list are eyes to read and places to find good books. I’m ok with libraries and big box stores but dusty second-hand shops (like The Bookplate in Chestertown and Vintage Books in Easton) are the jewels in my browsing crown. It’s where I go to find what I seek: in a phrase borrowed from Alan Furst’s new novel of World War II intrigue, “Under Occupation,” “the consolation of books.”
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with a home in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com.