09 April 2014

My Reading Life: The Mirror in the Book

In an essay called "Good Readers and Good Writers," Vladimir Nabokov, somewhat pompously, claims that "the worst thing a reader can do" is "identify himself with a character in [a] book.  This is not the kind of imagination that I would like readers to use."  While I love Nabokov, and even the rest of this particular essay, I can't imagine that I would have become the reader that I am today without identifying with so many characters in so many books. In fact, these characters are such a part of me, that I find myself in a bit of a chicken/egg situation.  Which came first: who I was, or the characters that I became?

First it was Harriet the Spy and Matilda, quiet, bookish types like me that ended up going on great adventures or having magnificent abilities. How many young introverts carried notebooks and collected observations, attempting to solve mysteries just like Harriet? And for how many of us were those the sparks of our future careers as writers and readers- professional collectors of details and solvers of problems? 

Then there were the Boxcar children, that rag tag group of self-sufficient orphans who inspired me on many a night to pack a couple of shirts in a hankercheif tied to a walking stick, and to "run away" to the woods behind my house for several hours.  And I'll never forget the way that I saw every closet differently after reading The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, or the way that I saw the whole world differently after my first forays into science fiction with Madeline L'Engle.  But those adventurous new worlds couldn't replace the pleasure of recognition that I found amongst the girls in the Babysitter's Club- perhaps my longest love affair- who each had a different characteristic that I wanted for my own:  Kristy's spunk, Claudia's artistic skills and Stacey's fashion sense.  But mostly there was Mary Anne, who was so much like me, I felt like I was looking at myself, finally, in the mirror on the pages of those stories that I loved.

Then in my teenage years I looked to the manic pixie dream girls in Francesca Lia Block's early YA novels to see the self that I had become.  I was the girl that didn't quite fit in on purpose; I was a little chubby, wore blue lipstick, cut my hair short and dyed it with Manic Panic.  But in those books, I saw people like me, who also wouldn't have fit in walking the hallways of my small town high school.

There are so many other specific moments growing up and into adulthood when I found myself in books, and when identifying with characters made me feel less alone. There are even books, like the Great Gatsby, that only get better and better as I understand more fully what their characters are experiencing- the ennui of the time that stretches between youth and adulthood- and I see my emotions, if not my life, in Nick Carraway's.   As someone who struggles, sometimes intensely, with anxiety, I am so grateful that other people have expressed similar struggles on paper and that I can read them when I feel like no could ever possibly understand me.

When I went to graduate school, I started to see the writer that I wanted to be in the theorists and novelists that I was reading.  But I never would have gotten there if I hadn't started by wanting to become, or by already being, those bookish types in the books from my childhood.  As I teacher, I see all the time students who don't know yet exactly where they are going, and I am grateful that I always had books to show me the way, to show me who I was and who I wanted to be. My greatest wish is that some of my students will see themselves in the books that I assign, so that reading might become meaningful, and might open up other worlds and possibilities.  So, to come back to where I began, with Vladimir Nabokov, maybe it is a bad reader who reads only for the pleasures of identification, but perhaps the good reader starts from there, and then she builds her own future.

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