Read On, Macduff

Harper Lee, the author of To Kill A Mockingbird— 1961’s Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction–died on February 19 in the same town in which she was born in 1926, Monroeville, Alabama. I have never read her novel.

More properly, I was never assigned to–although I attended a truly great high school. If you Google “the best public high schools in California 2016” you will find my alma mater at number six. I’ll admit that using the phrase alma mater–nourishing mother–is a bit of a stretch: after four years, the school unceremoniously expelled me in May of my senior year. Still, I was lucky enough to enjoy one hell of a good education. Never mind that I developed a full-blown case of senioritis, rendering me incapable of deigning to attend a civics class.

What I remember as assigned reading were works such as Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand; Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. I loved them. In those years I also read The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, much of Kurt Vonnegut and all of the works and collected letters of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Almost all of John Steinbeck and Jack London. And a good measure of Shakespeare. At this remove, however, I can not quite recall what precisely was assigned and what I read on my own. But I do remember having to read The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. I loathed it.

I’ve been a reader all my life. In grade school I polished off The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and, I imagine, hundreds of other tomes. To this day, when I’m between books, it’s like being without my wife.

But rarely do I read fiction. About 25 years ago it got to the point where I could fairly accurately predict the outcome of the novels I would read–and that took all the novelty out of reading them.

As exercise is for the body, reading is good for the mind. When we first got together–and for a few years afterwards–my wife would often ask me how I knew some obscure fact or other. “I breathe,” I always told her, as if everyone should know. What I really meant was, “I read.”

Oddly enough, my wife–who is no slouch–does not. Read many books, that is; of newspapers, she is a devourer.

It doesn’t matter what you read; it matters that you read.

I draw the line, though, at modern technology. I could no more take a kindle on vacation (there’s a word I’ll have to consult the dictionary about) than I could take a computer into a coffee shop. I require–for my sanity, seemingly–the real thing. Apart from champagne, abalone, art and music, sports victories, the laughter and accomplishments of children, earning money, comedy, the Apollo moon shots and all things to do with Saturday–what could be better than actually handling, in one’s hands or on the surface, say, of a table, a book or newspaper?

I’m writing about this now because, shortly after Lee’s death, our local PBS station aired an American Masters episode dedicated to her magnum opus. In many testimonials, To Kill a Mockingbird was recalled as influential in the lives of those who read it, mostly when young. This does not inspire me to read the novel; rather, it inspires me to encourage youngsters to read in general.

The irony is, though, that only one of our five kids can be called a reader. How this came to pass is totally beyond me. I don’t think they know what they’re missing. At least, I prefer to think so over the stark fact that they may just not be interested.

What is interesting is both what they do and do not know–as if the internet has provided a wide, though shallow, smattering of data. Sure, they might have information at their fingertips–but not having to wade through a library has deprived them of all the ancillary and tangential facts one amasses during research. The Google experience is a far cry from threading, then scrolling through, a microfiche.

Still, it is a bit of a relief to be able to look up one particular thing, no matter how recondite, when one needs to–especially as the effects of age encroach upon the mind. I may not remember where the car keys are, but if I need to be sure of some arcane minutiae I can secure it instantly. Without even thinking about it.

But reading inherently involves thinking. If you didn’t pay any mind to what you were looking at on the page–if you didn’t think about what you were reading–you wouldn’t really be reading.

Let me paraphrase Descartes here: I read, therefore I am.

— Joseph Oldenbourg

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