Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"How Reading Changed My Life" by Anna Quindlen

Published: 1998
Read: 2011
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 4
Review: Goodreads

A very quick read by a bestselling author whose love of books radiates from the pages.  She attributes this love to a certain restlessness as a child, and says this:
"So I wandered the world thought books.  I went to Victorian England in the pages of Middlemarch and A Little Princess, and to Saint Petersburg before the fall of the czar with Anna Karenina.  I went to Tara, and Manderley, and Thornfield Hall, all those great houses, with their high ceilings and high drama, as I read Gone with the Wind and Jane Eyre."
A number of other quotes from the book are on this post so I will not re-type them here.  I do however, want to write about some thoughts she has on why and what women read and how this differs from men.  Despite being broad generalizations that will not be true for everyone, I would like to explore further.
"...I began to think that women read differently than men....a Gallup poll taken in 1991 showed that women were more likely than men to find reading a more relaxing pastime than watching television....Some bookstore owners say their women customers are more likely to read novels, while the men more often choose biographies and history. Perhaps women feel more of a need to escape their own lives and take up those of others than men do."
"But it also seemed to me...that women seem to see reading not only as a solitary activity but as an opportunity for emotional connection, not just to the characters in a novel but to those others who are reading or have read the same novel themselves."
"This ability of a book to lesson isolation is important, not simply for personal growth, but for cultural and societal growth as well."
I am also remined of a quote by Maureen Corrigan in her book, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading.  Here, she muses as to why she and fellow bookworms read:
" for authenticity.  We want to get closer to the heart of things, and sometimes even a few good sentences contained in an otherwise unexceptional book can crystallize vague feelings, fleeting physical sensations, or sometimes, profound epiphanies...Readers, professional or casual, are alert to passages in a book that illuminate what was previously shadowy and formless."
It is the combination of these thoughts that speak to me.  My life is now segregated in terms of "pre" and "post Josh" - like a thick black line or better said, a chasm that irrevocably separates my two selves.

"Pre-Josh", I read novels.  Quickly.  The faster, the better.  I wanted to connect with the characters and get lost in their story. These kinds of books are aptly called "brain candy" by some.  "Post-Josh", I read for "emotional connection" and to "lesson isolation" as Quindlen says.  I also read to "crystallize vague feelings" and illuminate the "shadowy and formless" as said by Corrigan.

In fact, everything I read now is with a filter - plain and simple: Josh's death. I am searching for authenticity or truth.  I look for meaning and understanding.  I want to find the answer to THE unanswerable question: "Why, Josh, why?"

I was thinking about this over two weeks ago and drew a funnel in my journal.  At the top, where the width is greatest, I wrote the following: dreams, writing, journaling, books, thoughts, quotes, ideas, conversations, stories, memoirs, fiction, survivor of suicide books, parental bereavement books, lyrics, movies.  At the bottom of the funnel, is THE question.  After drawing this, I wrote:
"So, as opposed to others, who have no real issues, pain, sorrow, grief or tragedy, and read just to read, because they like books and have been bookish all their lives, I read and write for salvation.  To avoid or bypass mental illness, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, my own temptations of suicide. To be able to function.  Reading and writing is a life support.  It sustains me.  Guides me.  Illuminates.  Forces me to follow thoughts and ideas that would previously be unknown or simmering in my subconscious, wreaking havoc.  Reveals what is dormant - thoughts or feelings that lie beneath conscious thought.  If left untouched or not brought to the light of scrutiny, it could in fact, cause mental illness, breakdown, even madness."
It surprised me then, how quickly and easily these words flew from pen to paper.  And as I re-read and type them now, they still ring true.

Grieving is a lonely business.  I would not survive if not for the companionship offered in books and in my journal.


  1. I love the paragraph you've shared from your journal and I can relate quite a lot. I also read and write for mental salvation, from different reasons (childhood abuse and depression), and I was also bookish from a young age, but I sometimes feel left out around other book bloggers who just read for fun. I'm quite glad to find your blog, as I said already, because I'd begun feeling overwhelmed by blogging, trying to keep up with so many books and write constantly good long posts about them. You remind me to dig deeper, to keep it personal, on my own journey and not to worry as much about what other people think of me. I worry people won't be able to relate if I share too much about how I really feel, the depressing stuff. I keep wanting to blog differently, more quietly and thoughtfully, about personal things that matter more, but am not sure how. It's good to see you doing it.

    Also, I went over to your other blog about your son and was appalled to see that he had been treated so harshly for only using marijuana (? if I've got my facts right?) -- in Canada it's not seen as that big of a deal, I've had various friends use it just to relax and although I never wanted to take any drugs, my youngest brother did use marijuana for a while, he partied a bit and we worried that he'd been too spoiled and would only ever play video games and goof off, but now he has a beautiful daughter and will be married this summer and he's happy (and more responsible too!) Marijuana was not a 'gateway drug' for him. Now that he has a daughter and girlfriend he is fully committed to taking care of them and has grown up at last. I can't believe those school officials would be so harsh over something that as far as I know, a lot of teenagers (and adults) experiment with!

    Anyways, I didn't want to upset you further, but wanted to say, don't blame yourself. My mom worried that she'd spoiled my brother too much and been too hard on him too and that he'd never turn out well, but he came around. It sounds like it was circumstances outside of your control, as hard as that is to deal with. I was my most suicidal when feeling judged by authority figures, as a student teacher, desperately trying to make rowdy teenagers care about Shakespeare and knowing the people evaluating me didn't think I was doing a good enough job and finally being told I was failing the course. I thought being a teacher was my only option in life and that nothing was left for me. I was literally ready to kill myself, but luckily there was nothing around for me to do it with. And eventually after leaving university for a while I remembered how much I loved reading and writing and found myself again. But it was that horrifying feeling of failure and no way out, no way to be a success in life, which our society says is all that matters, when I had pushed myself so hard to get good marks and not have any fun (I stopped reading for fun in university and hardly had any friends, that kind of extreme work ethic, or 'zero tolerance policy' to pleasure, made me less resilient when I went through stressful situations) and get into the teaching program, that almost did me in. I still have enormous fear that I'll harm myself some day, that a switch will be turned on in my head again, saying that's it, I'm too scared to go any further, life is over for me. I guess I need to keep remembering that it's not about being successful and having everyone's approval, it's about finding the little hopeful joyful beautiful things that matter to me, that make life worth living. Thanks again for your honesty.

  2. Carolyn - THANK YOU for your thoughts! Being new to the world of book blogging, I have been searching to find more like-minded bloggers, who are reading for more intensely personal reasons and looks like I have found one! Or we have found one another - I am so grateful.

    It is interesting what you say about being concerned what others might think of certain posts. I know what you mean. Initially,I had started this blog just for myself, because I didn't want to have any "censor" in my head while writing. Then I found that I wanted the same connection to others that I've found on Josh's blog. So I published it and said to myself, "ok here we go." A little scary - it felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.

    And I've been sticking my toe in the water - commenting on a few blogs, joined the Villette read-a-long, and slowly sticking my neck out (turtle analogy just came into my head). I've been somewhat wistful about the relationships it seems many bloggers have made with one another and like I said, hoping to find some of those for myself.

    So again - thanks so, so much for posting. And just want to encourage you to post whatever the h*** you want (excuse my french) in your own blog. Whatever will help you. Whatever you want to remember about books, whatever speaks to you because I am very sure that it will help others. Even as an example of how to use a book to look deeper into ourselves. Of how to be more honest with ourselves. And truthfully, as life goes on, EVERYONE will face heartache, grief, emotional challenges and I feel that it is better to face those things than live in denial or suppression.

    I've had an unspeakable tragedy in my life. And I have a genuine fear of more. Sounds like you've had your own demons. For me, if it weren't for books, journaling, and blogging, who knows were I'd be.

    My email is I hope we can be in touch via our blogs and email as well.