Friday, April 2, 2010

The Children's Book

Every once in a while I luck out with a book—Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, Cloudstreet, Hannah’s Daughter— and I inadvertently channel my 16-year old self holed up in my room, door closed, not putting down my book for dinner, for phone calls, for my little brother pounding on the door to tell me I’m going to be in big trouble if I don’t come downstairs.

These— generally more than 400-page— books can be daunting and rough going at the beginning: huge casts of characters, quick point of view shifts, elaborate scenic descriptions or historical context. And it may take, twenty, even fifty pages before you settle in and find yourself reading deep into the night.

I’ve revisited this feeling of immersion into another world this past week and a half reading A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book. It took some tenacity and patience to hold on through the introduction of the many characters and the pages of historical setting from 1895-1919. I did my usual skimming over moments or characters I didn’t care about, but for the most part was glued to the book to find out what happened to Dorothy and Phillip, Elsie and Julian, how WW I would affect this community of artists, writers, socialists and bankers, all of whom were interconnected.

After feeling engulfed by a book like The Children’s Book or any of the read-late-into-the-night books I listed above, I’m struck by the bias that reading good books is considered an intellectual activity, and perhaps to be shunned by those who think of intellectual activity with disdain. My desire to talk to my friend L, who recommended the Byatt book to me, about what happens to Tom or how I can’t stand Olive, seems no different from my conversations about the characters in Mad Men. Why is the act of reading a well-written (long) novel thought of as an erudite activity when it shares the same qualities of good television or movies—compelling stories well told?

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