I'm the Darth Vader of the plant world.
By age 12, before Star Wars burst on the scene, I was bored by fauna, flora–the whole nature thing.
I was in seventh grade, it was spring break, and my grandma had dragged me to the Philadelphia Flower Show. Bees buzzed above my head, and vines threatened to encircle me. I did the one thing I could to escape this green-thumbed misery: I read my dog-eared copy of Cather in the Rye, which I'd stashed in my purse. Soon I was riding a cab with Holden Caulfield in New York, far from the world of pollen and violets.
Until my grandma tapped my shoulder and said, "young lady, when will you get your nose out of that book?" Too much reading wasn't good, she added, it made you miss out on "real life." Besides, if you read all the time, "people will think you're strange and you won't make friends," my grandmother said.
Then, believing that I knew everything there was to know, I figured that though I loved her, my grandma, not being wise like me, was out to lunch.
Now, I wonder if there wasn't some truth in what she said.
Don't get me wrong. I adore reading. I love reading about reading and writing about reading. Sometimes I go nuts and, voluntarily, write on writing about reading.
A Gutenberg moment can be life-changing. If my life ever passes before my eyes, I'll see a series of such moments:
. The day, when sitting by my Mom in southern New Jersey, I met Jo March in Little Woman and realized that I wasn't the only tomboy who wanted to be a writer
. The evening at a professor's house in college in Clinton, N.Y., when Franny and Zooey, introduced me to radio, whiz kids, mysticism, incomparable writing and so much else.
. The afternoon on the F train in New York, when I first read Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems. It was then that I realized that poetry could be vibrant, poignant, ironic and impeccably crafted.
Reading can be world-changing. Or at least the impetus for transformation. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle helped to bring about reforms in the meat-packing industry. War and Peace to me is one of the great anti-war novels.
Yet reading is a solitary, anti-social act. This is brought home, deftly, with a moving comedic touch by Arnold Bennett in his new novella The Uncommon Reader (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Bennett, the well-respected English writer and author of the play The History Boys, sets up a simple, but compelling conceit in this slim volume. Queen Elizabeth II, (the contemporary British monarch) not known for being a book-worm, suddenly becomes an avid, incessant reader.
This metamorphosis transforms her life. The Queen withdraws from her husband, her family, and some of her duties–so she can read (everything from Nancy Mitford to Proust).
She stops asking heads of state safe questions (about the weather or how far they've traveled) and wants to know if they've read Beckett or Genet. (This is a problem for them. They haven't, but don't know how to admit that to the Queen.)
The Queen knows that reading has "enriched" her life, but also that it "had at the same time drained her life of all purpose."
The people at the Palace begin to suspect that all of this reading is a sign that the Queen may be becoming "senile." After all, they reason, she is getting old.
They worry even more when the Queen begins not only to read, but to write.
Reading, the Queen has learned, though transformative, is, at heart, a solitary pleasure.
Writing, she thinks, may be more her speed. It is, the Queen muses, "doing." Writing is a bit more up her alley than reading. It is more of a duty than a pleasure to her (though, like all writers, the Queen looks forward to being published).
The Uncommon Reader is essentially comedic. Yet, it raises some serious points about reading.
Reading, like writing, of necessity, separates you from your family and peers (at least while you're reading or writing).
The pleasure of reading is frightening to anti-intellectual Puritans.
One of the first things tyrants do when they set up shop is to burn books.
Something to bear in mind, as we, uncommon readers, turn to our books.
If Poetry Journal
The first edition of If Poetry Journal, a fabulous new annual poetry magazine, is just out. If is edited by Donald Illich, a Rockville, Md. poet and finalist, WordWorks Washington Prize. Illich is a talented poet with a mordant, darkly humorous sensibility. A diverse group of poets is represented in If–from poet, playwright and host of "The Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress" Grace Cavalieri to Frank Marquardt of Oakland, Calif., who, his contributor's note says, "if he were a poem, he'd be an elephant." If Poetry Journal is $5 per issue. For more information, e-mail email@example.com.