Years ago, I owned a bookstore in Waynesville, North Carolina, where we sold used and new books, and a healthy collection of children’s literature.
One summer afternoon, a woman accompanied by two adolescent grandchildren entered the store. While the kids browsed the shelves, the grandmother and I visited at the checkout desk. At one point during our cordial conversation, she looked at her grandchildren, both of whom were absorbed in books, smiled, and said, “You know, I don’t really care what they’re reading as long as they’re reading.”
Only the desire for a sale—like most independent booksellers, I always needed cash—prevented my reply: “That’s like saying, ‘I don’t care what they’re eating as long as they’re eating.’”
What we put into our brains is just as crucial to our health as what we put into our bodies. An example: Once at Waynesville’s public library, I was standing behind a young woman, age 16 or 17, who handed the librarian a book she was returning and said: “This should have a warning label on it. It’s put images into my head that won’t go away.”
The book was Thomas Harris’s horrifying “The Silence of the Lambs.”
What we read does indeed matter.
And so do those books we don’t read.
A Love Neglected
A talk with a New York friend prompted this article. We were speaking by phone, and she mentioned that in the past year she had been reading fewer and fewer books.
“I’m online a lot,” she said, “and I’m reading articles and blogs there, but I’m not really reading real books. And to me, there’s a big difference between engaging with a book and reading some column on my laptop.”
Her comments reminded me that I was reading fewer books as well. Even in my busiest days 30 years ago, when my wife and I were raising children, running two businesses, and working other jobs to try to pay down our debt, I read more than I do now. Because I write reviews for a regional weekly, The Smoky Mountain News, I do read, but I consume those books for work and under a deadline, and not for pleasure.
Since my childhood, reading had brought me a special joy. No—more than a joy. Reading books was my avocation, perhaps even an addiction. Always I’d had a book going, sometimes two or three at the same time, but after my conversation with my friend, I realized this lifelong habit had, in the past year, seemingly vanished. Instead, I now spend several hours a day, off and on, skimming sites on the internet, looking for the latest news about the pandemic, riots and unrest, and the presidential election.
This is absurd.
Time to become a reader of books again.
Part of my problem, which began about 20 years ago, has to do with modern fiction. I’ll still pick up the suspense novels of certain authors, or stories that have to do with bookstores and librarians, or novels by authors I’ve long loved like Anne Tyler, but otherwise, most fiction written nowadays leaves me as cold as today’s snow in my yard. Fantasy, romance novels bordering on pornography, tales from abroad, and stories about murderers or deviants crowd the new arrivals shelves of my local library, and all would be as welcome in my home as … well, as Antifa wanting to make my place an autonomous zone.
The political folks I read several years back also hold little interest for me. Time and again, their books have ridden home with me in my Civic, only to gather dust on the floor by my desk. Their arguments these days are all too familiar to me from my online excursions and are often dated as well.
In terms of new books to read for pleasure and edification, then, history and biography will become my companions. Like reading, history has also been a lifelong passion, and the past, I believe, will shine a light on my present and give me the fortitude to face future trials. Should it arrive in the mail on time, I’ll start this project next week with Michael Walsh’s “Last Stands: Why Men Fight When All Is Lost.”
Old Masters, New Friends
C.S. Lewis once wrote, “It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
I doubt whether I can meet that standard, but confess my negligence of old books distresses me. In my 20s and early 30s, I read many of the masters: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Conrad, Chaucer, Cervantes, Dickens, and so on. Later, I taught some of these writers as well as Austen, Emily Brontë, Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, and Sophocles to the homeschooled students in my seminars.
Again, for the past year or two, I have read few older writers, and again intend to change my ways. Having come across mentions of Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” many times over the years without ever having read it, I have begun that tale of England set in the time of Richard I. I’ve only read the first 30 pages or so, but I’ve enjoyed the slow pace, the revived memories from my graduate school days when I studied Medieval English history, and some remarks that seem apropos to our current political climate 200 years after Scott wrote them. Here he describes the animosity between the Norman conquerors of England and their Saxon subjects:
“The royal policy had long been to weaken, by every means, legal and illegal, the strength of a part of the population which was justly considered as nourishing the most inveterate antipathy to their victor.”
Up next may be Dostoevsky’s “The Devils,” which I once promised myself to read but never did; some ancient Greek plays I’ve never explored; perhaps Eliot’s “Middlemarch;” and Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People,” recommended to me by a friend who knocks back book after book.
That friend lives in North Carolina. Three others, one in North Carolina, one in Virginia, and one in Minnesota, also remain voracious readers, despite all the temptations of our digital age. Whenever I speak with them by phone or in person, the talk inevitably turns to the novel, biography, or history they’re now reading. Having awakened to my own stunted literary state, I intend to bring something to our conversation the next time we speak.
So why should we wish to emulate readers of books in this digital age? Why decide to make books important again in our lives as opposed to the constant blur of online articles?
Because most of what we read on the sites and blogs we visit is ephemera. Here today and gone tomorrow. Most of what I write, for instance, fits in this category snuggly as a foot in a shoe. I have no delusions about my articles and pieces I send to various publications; most will be read, perhaps appreciated, and forgotten within a week.
The Bibliophile Is Back
But books—good books, great books—inhabit the mind forever. Here’s an example: Almost 50 years ago, I read Larry Woiwode’s “Beyond the Bedroom Wall.” This novel, now largely forgotten by today’s readership, had a massive impact on me. Woiwode’s story of the Neumiller family has haunted me for years, and even today, two copies of his novel, one of which I gave to my mother and retrieved after her death, sit side by side on my bookshelves.
As for the Great Books, characters like Heathcliff and Catherine in “Wuthering Heights,” Raskolnikov and Sonya in “Crime and Punishment,” the characters in “The Great Gatsby,” Henry V in Shakespeare’s play by the same name: These and a host of others inhabit my brain like old friends, loyal, always ready to be summoned up when I need or want their company.
This year, I resolve to expand that circle of friends.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust on Their Wings,” and two works of nonfiction, “Learning as I Go” and “Movies Make the Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.