As I have probably written before, I like to read (alot). I read anywhere from one book a week, to two or three, and sometimes I have more than one book on the go at a given time. I read fast, I read thoroughly, and I absorb most of what I read.
I also re-read. I keep a stock of many many books, all of them 'favourites' (they number in the hundreds). I once had a dinner party, years ago, where my book collection was approximately a quarter of what it is now (and when I moved into my loft I sold boxes of books to my local used bookstore).
One of my dinner party guests was looking at my bookshelf, warily, holding his wineglass. He sought me out.
"Have you actually read ALL those books?", he asked, kind of incredulously.
I stared at him. "Of course!" I extolled, briefly, my love of reading. He seemed moved.
But I was the one who was moved--I couldn't imagine my life without 'my' books, the texture of holding a book, it's slight weight. The memories associated with certain books, their ability to transport me. I still have my battered childhood copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I was upset when Dahl died. I felt like I knew him.
I re-read 1984 every few years to remind me of why laws that seems obscenely liberal and focussed on personal freedom should be that way. Of why it's okay to fall in love with whomever you want to.
There is another book that I habitually re-read, for a number of different reasons, too, again, partially due to my love of reading memoir (it has eclipsed fiction as my favourite genre in recent years). It's by a former journalist-turned-accidental memoirist, and in my experience of reading memoir, journalists often make very very good story-tellers, especially when they turn the pen on themselves. The book is "Drinking, A Love Story" by Caroline Knapp. I've been re-reading chapters of it lately to re-visit her take on the death of both her parents, of cancer, when she was respectively 32 and 33. A tense, fractured family, but with a strong connection to one another, I can relate to her scenario. When I first read this book, aged 21, I found it fascinating--I so admired Knapp's ability to put her life on the page, raw and uncensored, honest, and without a trace of self-pity for a life that was anything but easy.
I get something new out of her book every time I read it, even when I read it in sections, in no particular order. She ascribed, maybe naively, when I read it now, at 37, alot of her 'life situations' to drinking and to its effects on her psyche, and how it kept her mired down. In reality, she was a successful writer, and alcohol had nothing to do with the fact the she lost both her parents in early adulthood, within a year of each other. She didn't marry early or have children, and again, as I read the book again at 37, this had to do with her own ambivalence towards both of those things, and the choices she made (brave choices) rather than anything else. She describes a feeling of being 'left behind' or 'stuck' as people all around her get married and give birth. I can relate to those feelings, but I also know it takes great strength of character to allow your life to look different from everyone elses'. So.. I filter the book differently now. I still love it, but I have different opinions from hers. I see the power of life to drop you down, and how little control we often have in situations of love, loss, luck.
Like Dahl, I was upset when I learned of her untimely death, at 42, of lung cancer. I googled her recently just to get more information to feed my recent obsession of finding out more on people who have died of cancer. Because it used to be just an expression to me, rather than a reality.
It used to be a series of words linked together rather than a painfully thin person, your own family member, a stauchly suffering person, your own father. Because my way of coping is through information, through reading, through knowing. Whether or not I know anything at all.
I will find out.
I leave this passage, one I found particularly touching, from a column written by Caroline Knapp, a few months before her father's death:
Notes on fathers
What illness can teach us about family connections (8/9/91)
My father stared out across the room, a pained expression on his face.
"I guess what I want to hear from you," he said, his eyes not meeting mine, "is that you think I'm a decent person."
I wanted to cry. My father, whom I've idolized all my life, is terminally ill. His condition, which developed quite aggressively and with little warning, was diagnosed in early May, and I have spent the better part of the months since then watching him confront the end of his life, and doing what I can to help him.
"You are far more than a decent person," I answered. "You are my father."
The exchange was brief but important: a small testimony to the kind of unconditional love that can exist between parents and children, a small lesson in what it means to be an adult child. . . .
I am this adult child now. And while I am miles away from the life Knapp lived, with all its ups and downs, and ultimately, its very short timeline, I feel, for all the world, what she must have suffered watching this.
I am home from another Sunday visit, and I pray I can continue with some capacity for self-comfort, as I feel depleted today. As Knapp so eloquently writes, he is more than just a decent person. He's my father.