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September 27, 2002

A Reader's Rhapsody


I was in the Klingenstein Pavilion of Mount Sinai Medical Center with a book propped up against my knees. I could see the treetops of the park from my window. Instead of standard issue hospital pajamas, I wore blue silk nightgowns and lacy camisoles. I thought they were more suited to my advanced age. I was 12.

A cabdriver had carried me into the emergency room. A nurse slipped an oxygen mask over my face. My skin was blue. My temperature was 107. If anyone had asked I would have said I was drowning. In fact, I had pneumonia, which kept me in and out of the hospital for a year. And it was there that I first felt the true, transcendent power of books, high above Fifth Avenue, the avenue where the annual New York Is Book Country fair is taking place this weekend.

I had always liked reading in a casual way. But that year I read with a fierceness that was new. I read the way only someone who wants to leave their body, their circumstances, reads. "The Mill on the Floss." "Death in Venice," "Wuthering Heights." This sort of reading was not passive but active: I broke open the books and chased the words. It was a breathless activity like running. I could hear the beep of the machines tracking my heart. I could see the upward swoops of the lines on the monitor like a child practicing handwriting.

A few blocks away in our brownstone on 95th Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, the walls were lined with 19th-century editions of Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Eliot and Thackeray. My father began collecting them after he got home from World War II. During the war, he and his army buddies had lugged a duffel bag full of Modern Library Classics through France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany along with the encryption machine they were transporting to scramble Army communications. They read "The Trial" and "Crime and Punishment" and "The Brothers Karamazov" in the back of trucks with flashlights and in sleeping bags under trees and on the long boat ride from Marseille to Japan.

My father bought our rare books at a used bookstore on Lexington Avenue in the upper 80's from an old man named Weiss. They were beautiful, cloth-bound volumes with paper that crumbled into a rich brown dust if you turned the pages too hard. Gold titles were engraved in the chocolate-colored binding and the pictures were covered with waxy paper.

One day my father brought me the two volumes of "David Copperfield." Snow was flying past the hospital window. I held one in my hands afraid to handle such a fragile thing, but there was something comforting in its ancientness and bulk. Hours later, tiny pieces of paper were in my hair, under my fingernails, in my mouth. I was enveloped literally. I smelled, tasted, felt the story.

The man next to me in intensive care died. Some evangelicals from a storefront church in East Harlem came by and lighted candles and threw rice over me, until the nurses came and objected to the candles. I could feel my mother's worry in the room. But a new Dickensian world arranged itself around me with perfect clarity, down to the street noises, hoofbeats and roast-beef dinners. The young David Copperfield glanced at himself in the mirror, thinking "my hair only my hair nothing else, looked drunk." The antiseptic smell of the hospital vanished, the whirring of the machines quieted. I felt a blurring at the edges that was, under the circumstances, not a bad thing.

I looked at my face in the mirror. I was becoming strange. The front of my hair was falling out. The Gilbert and Sullivan production of "The Gondoliers" in which I had been cast as a lead was going on without me, and my best friend had decided she didn't want anything to do with me now that I was sick. My hands and wrists were covered in bruises and there were tubes snaking into my arms and between my ribs. I had a test where they dyed my lungs white for an X-ray that looked like snow-covered trees. But it didn't matter. Whatever was going to happen in my hospital room, I wasn't there.

The mind needs to keep busy. But that's not all it was. Books gave me perspective the way religion might have for another kind of impressionable teenager. As I read, the characters multiplied in my head Dora, Mr. Micawber, Pegotty each one decreasing the importance of my own situation, making it less. It was like looking down at my house from an airplane. And I felt myself released.

When my mother wasn't hovering in hospital hallways with watery coffee, she wrote novels. Our kitchen echoed with the rhythmic pound of the typewriter, the heartbeat of her latest creation. Her concentration was so intense it was almost trancelike. She could work with children climbing on her lap, pans crashing, the Rolling Stones blaring. She could scribble down thoughts at the supermarket while we grabbed boxes of Cap'n Crunch from the shelves. Her words surrounded her like a haze.

One summer Bernard Malamud came to Nantucket to visit our yellow house with roses climbing up the walls. For large chunks of the day, my younger sister and I were banished from the house so that he would have the absolute silence he needed to write.

At night, my father pulled the curtain and read us "The Wind in the Willows" until we fell asleep. And that's how it was. Our houses were cluttered with phantom books, invisible, much loved, much fretted over books in progress. Long before I knew how to read a book, I understood the power of writing one.

After a seven-and-a-half-hour operation and a week to recover, I finally went home. I weighed 62 pounds. I was still not strong enough to open a door. In the Collected W. B. Yeats, which my eighth-grade class was studying in my absence, I had underlined and starred these lines:

An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing.

I had written in the margin in a bubbly handwriting that is no longer my own, "The Immortality of Art." And that is what I was after. The connection to something divine. The words carrying through time. The stream of language that goes on forever, that survives. I drank milkshakes made with heavy cream and I kept reading.

Years later I moved downtown to an apartment on West 12th Street with slanted ceilings and doorways that looked as if they had been cut out of the wall by a second-grader. I began to write. During the arduous stretches, I dipped into the biographies and memoirs of the writers I admired. Many of them had lived, at least for brief interludes, a few blocks from me. What is it that is so appealing about biographies? You lose yourself in someone else. You sink into the mundane worries and setbacks and sheer volume of a whole life, you see how every footnote fits into the larger structure, each moment contributing, and it is somehow reassuring.

I read about Mary McCarthy worrying about eating dinner alone in a second-floor restaurant on Eighth Street and about Elizabeth Bishop cooking artichokes and hollandaise sauce in her walkup at 16 Charles Street. I read about Edith Wharton writing in bed, letting pages of her novels drip to the floor, her Pekingese yapping at her feet. I read about Joan Didion crying in Chinese laundries on the Upper East Side.

The summer I began writing my last book I went through 30 Trollope novels in rapid succession. I barely had time to work in the brief pauses in my reading. I gave up newspapers altogether. I was far too immersed in parliamentary struggles and church politics. I was so absorbed in Trollope's hundred-page discourses on romantic perversity, I missed drink dates. I missed subway stops. (If there are times you worry that New York is not, in fact, book country, but Gucci Shoe country, you have only to go into the subway: there are underground channels of men in suits reading "Of Mice and Men" next to high school girls reading "How Proust Can Change Your Life" next to boys in ratty corduroys reading "Motherless Brooklyn.")

I find it irritating when people say that I am reading to escape myself. I am more myself when I read. Though there are times when I suspect that I use books the way housewives once used Valium for their sheer narcotic power. Rebecca West. Colson Whitehead. Julian Barnes. Whole days and nights are lost.

During phases like this, my husband looks at me as if a rare spotted owl has alighted on his couch. He carries a briefcase and goes out into the world. He doesn't understand how I can sit for five hours without moving with a copy of Saul Bellow's "Ravelstein." I tell him that I am better off than if I remembered to pick up the mail or call back an editor or dash off a polemic. Because every now and then I come across something so beautiful and startling it makes the tumultuous city stand still like Saul Bellow's last line, "you don't easily give up a creature like Ravelstein to death." I tell my husband that hospitals still make me queasy every time I enter one. And books still save me.

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