There are books that you race through, anxious to see what happens next, to learn where the storyline will take you. Then there are books that are meant to be savored, drawn out slowly to enjoy their mastery of the written word. It’s only fitting that a book like Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books by Lynne Sharon Schwartz should be one of the latter.
The first thing that makes a reader want to undertake this longish essay (with no chapter breaks, unhappily) is its title. Anyone who loves to read, who adores books, and is likely to be drawn to read a book on just that subject will likely find the title confusing. How can anyone be ruined by something so wonderful? The paradox is finally revealed, although not until very far along in the story. Revealing the secret is not something that anyone who actually plans to read this book will want to know ahead of time, but suffice it to say, the event that leads the author to conclude such a thing is intertwined with family events.
So, too, is much of the book, which is what gives reading its power. Even when one is talking about a “classic” a book so designated as something worthy of reading by all, not everyone will read a particular book. Reading is a very individual pursuit. It is shaped by what the reader brings to the book as much as it shapes the reader after. Schwartz talks about those books recommended by friends which languish on her shelves unread. Or those she felt compelled to buy because of a review she read. “I should have bought the reviewer’s book,” she laments.
For reading is a gamble. It’s hard to determine just what a book can give a reader or whether that brilliant cover is merely a good sales job for a bad product. And why are books that contain such treasures (like Modern Library classics) wrapped in covers so subdued as to make them seem positively dull, when in fact, they are just the opposite?
As you can see, there is much to contemplate in the arguments and history documented here of Schwartz’s own life with books. It’s amazing to me that she can remember so much about her early life (learning to read, being a prodigy whose parents have her read from the New York Times for friends). However, I did find myself returning to warm childhood memories. Another enjoyable aspect to the book is how the books fit the author’s life, yet do not insert feelings of guilt in the reader that they may not have had the same reading list growing up or as an adult. In other words, this is guilt-free reading, not the type of book that has you creating a long list of books you “should” have read by now.
That is the wonder of Ruined by Reading. The author makes you appreciate your own experience and suggests that “reading is escape–why not admit it?” It’s not such a bad thing to put our own lives and worries aside for awhile and take up a new life and thoughts via a book. In fact, it can be quite wonderful.
Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books
Lynne Sharon Schwartz