I read Matilda by Roald Dahl twice when I was 11 years old. And then I might have read it a third time a year or so later. Reading her felt like finding an alternate version of myself; a me I would have rather been. She, too, lived in a house where she felt alone and unappreciated, and she read every book she could get. Her parents were untrustworthy, cruel, and largely children themselves. Of course, the comparison wasn’t direct. I didn’t have to cook my own meals. I didn’t have to self-educate at the local library and beg my parents to allow me to go to school. My parents, despite anything else, did not stand in the way of my endeavors. Feeling misunderstood as a child might not happen to everyone. But it happens to enough of us to be highlighted as a hallmark condition of childhood. Perhaps it’s a rite of passage most children must go through on their way to feeling a sense of security in their own skin. As difficult as that may be, it’s even more so when the environment is an unfriendly one. And to all those children, Mr. Dahl offered Matilda as a respite. She didn’t freeze and shrink in the unfriendliness as I did. She had the strength to allow herself to blossom despite her environment, developing the intelligence and telekinetic powers that helped her find people who truly cherished her. Needless to say, that route wasn’t available to me. But reading about it was. Reading about everything was absolutely a route that was available to me. It came then as a surprise, sometime in my mid-30s, to realize I’d let one of my most cherished hobbies fall by the wayside. I’d stopped reading books.
Although I grew up in a very analogue childhood, in the generation known today as “Older Millennials,” technology later entered insidiously into my life and filled those idle hours. The leisurely, unmonitored time that gave me the space to peruse and choose a book no longer existed. I’ve come to question whether modern lifestyles even permit such an activity anymore or if it needs to be purposefully carved out. (Think about this: Where we once deliberately turned on a TV or a computer, we now must deliberately turn our devices off.) As the word phone became synonymous with the word computer, so did my idle time fade away.
When I was a kid, our phone sat on its own table in the kitchen. “Keisman residence,” I was allowed to answer when I was old enough. A little older than that, it was my voice on the answering machine, saying, “Please leave a message and we’ll call you back.” A ringing phone was something of an annoyance, disrupting our activities. Calls were often screened, and missed calls weren’t agonized over. If someone called that I wanted to talk to – a school friend, a relative in another state – I spoke to that person while sitting on the designated chair next to the phone. It’s not that we didn’t have a cordless phone at one point, just that it seemed distracting and rude to do something else while talking on the phone. We didn’t have a home computer, and I don’t recall knowing anyone who did. If I wanted to know something, I went to the library or looked it up in our deluxe set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I didn’t feel anxious about not knowing something.
My parents were older; when I was born in 1983, my mother was 40 and my father was 56. The household format I grew up with didn’t so much reflect the current time as it did their time. My parents didn’t grow up with televisions in their living rooms, so I didn’t either. (I recall my mother telling me how, when she was a girl, there was one television in their neighborhood, around which all the children gathered to watch Howdy Doody.) The TV was regarded as something “extra,” and it had its own room, “the TV room.” In the living room, the sofa and chairs were situated around the coffee table. It was clearly set up for socializing, which is ironic because my parents didn’t much enjoy each other’s company, nor did they often invite guests over. For me, the draw of the living room was the large, built-in library. My father kept many of his books on psychoanalysis there, along with books of ancient condition his parents had brought with them from Russia. My mother had books on ballet, art, photography, cooking, and between the two of them, there was a random collection of novels and general interest books. Many of them were dusty and hadn’t been opened in ages. They were my own treasure to discover.
One book in that collection that stands out in my memory was my mother’s art history textbook that she saved from her college days. It was a fabric-bound hardcover book, large and heavy for me at the time. The spine cracked with age, and it rained dust when opened. It contained a smattering of art from every movement a first-year art history student might need to know. If you asked me now, I’d say that the artists who inspired my artistic self as a child were Matisse, Picasso, and Hockney. But in that book, I found the painting of Saint Sebastian most enticing. I didn’t know anything about his martyrdom or what he represented. To me, he was simply a mostly naked man, tied to a tree, shot full of arrows, and bleeding. (I realize this describes all paintings of Saint Sebastian. In recent years I have tried to identify exactly which painting was in that book, but I’ve been unsuccessful.) I was fascinated by the details of the arrow wounds, his stringy muscles and powder-pink flesh, and the strange ecstasy on his face. A psychologist might say that it was a time of sexual awakening, of erotic discovery, and that’s probably true. And yet, when I think of that art history book and the painting of Saint Sebastian, I think of a time when I had the time: Time to peruse a book in such a meandering way that led me to discover something I never would have otherwise discovered. Technology helps me discover new things all the time but looking at a hundred new things for a short time and looking at one for a long time are very different experiences.
Though my mother often read to me at bedtime, I remember only a few titles: Goodnight Moon, Alexander’s No Good Very Bad Day, Hattie and The Wild Waves, and The Velveteen Rabbit. My favorite thing about Goodnight Moon was looking at the pictures. In comparison to the emotional climate in our house, the calming repetitiveness of saying “goodnight” to each thing in the room felt forced and staged. But the dark greens and blues of the bedroom in the book, the moon and stars seen through the window, allowed me to create a mental image of a world I wanted to escape to. I connected to Hattie and her wild waves for similar reasons as I would later to Matilda. Hattie was a dreamer, and she wanted to be an artist, and so did I. But Hattie’s family seemed happy, and for the duration of the book, I’d pretend that mine was a happy family too. Her German mother would lovingly call her Dummkopf, and it reminded me of how my father, in an unpredictable, playful mood, would call me nudnik. Playful foreign language nicknames followed me when I married an Austrian who used his own diminutive phrase of Doof Nudel when talking to our cat.
Although I also read on my own, my mother’s ritual of reading to me continued until I was nearly 12. The first book I remember reading together, taking turns reading pages or sections, was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. One of the silliest times I can recall between my mother and me was reading the tea party scene with the Mad Hatter. She would start reading, pushing the words out as she choked with laughter. We’d switch, and I’d try to hold it together long enough to make it through the dialogue of the scene, only to choke and sputter with giggles myself. We traded back and forth in this way, laughing so hard we could barely understand one another. At some point, I went back and read the book on my own. In the years after that, my mother and I laughed less and less. Not because we didn’t read together anymore, although I know a part of her imagines that was the beginning of the end.
A short yet relevant digression:
In 2015 I spent a year teaching English at a middle school in a village in China. The process of getting legally and literally situated there was Kafkaesque. One office after another, one train after another, one piece of information that led me to another and another, which proved the first one false and had to be redone, one doctor after another, and one seedy hotel after another. One day, I got on a train to take me to my destination, the village of Yushan. This was a bullet train and it sped along at 300km per hour, cutting through the China of literature, of atlases, of documentaries. Endless landscape stretched out to either side as the train sliced through green fields and foggy mountains. As frazzled as I was by the whole process, it was this view that I had come to see.
Nearly 9 hours later, the train pulled into a station and stopped. Everyone stood up. Not understanding what was happening, but knowing that I wasn’t yet at my destination, I remained seated. An older woman of about 60 or 70 came over to me. She smiled warmly and took my arm, tugging me to get up. “No,” I said. Her smile widened, and she pulled my arm with more force. “No!” I said again, louder this time. This had no effect. The jolly woman continued pulling, and I broke under the pressure and stood up. She then reached down in front of me, picked up my suitcase and put it in the aisle. “No!” I said again, feeling increasingly helpless and ridiculous. “No”: a simple, strong word which in this situation was not only meaningless, but also amusing. I gave in and stepped into the aisle next to my bag so I could at least keep it close by. I was tense and stressed from being jostled around for weeks.
No one was getting on or off the train. The car was organized like an airplane: three seats grouped left, three grouped on the right, and three in the middle. A man or woman was stationed at the end of every row of seats, and almost in perfect union, each one leaned down, grabbed hold of a latch under the seats, clicked it up, and spun the entire row around so the seats now faced the opposite direction. The woman once again smiled generously at me and gestured to a seat to indicate that I could now sit down. For the first time, my face and chest began to loosen, and I smiled back. My seat wasn’t being taken, my bag wasn’t being stolen, and I wasn’t being forced off the train in the middle of who-knows-where. For no reason that was apparent to me, the seats just needed to be rotated in unison. It occurred to me that, taken out of context, the whole scene was positively whimsical. I sat down and in my mind’s eye, the Mad Hatter leapt out and announced in his warbly voice, “Change places!” I began to laugh the sort of laughter that makes you fear for your own safety. I couldn’t breathe or speak or swallow; my shoulders quaked and tears ran down my face. I don’t think I’ve laughed so hard since.
The 90s became the 2000s and I grew up. College created the need for a laptop. I traded in my talk-and-text Nokia for a smartphone. I moved around a lot, first within the United States, then through a few countries in Europe, and then China. Belongings became a liability, but that was easily dealt with: the same device which, when I was young was just for talking on the phone, now does just about everything else. The need for wrist watches, thermometers, newspapers, workout classes, meditation lessons, cookbooks and novels has vanished. All that can be done on a phone. There’s value in that freedom, but it meant that my world got louder and more chaotic. Everything was always available, and because of that, I lost the valuable time I enjoyed as a child, to just be bored and see what happens. I stopped reading books and started scrolling instead.
Growing up, “Read any good books lately?” was a common question. Maybe it was because we were kids and “What do you do?” wasn’t in our vernacular yet. “What’s your name?” only takes you so far. Grown-ups asked us this, along with “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because “What do you want to study?” was too big a question for a 10-year-old. When my parents asked this, it was a little bit of a quiz. The question either preceded or followed “What did you learn today?” and it was meant to assess whether I was living attentively. Not having a thoughtful answer meant that I wasn’t. It wasn’t entirely necessary that my answer be related to a book I’d read, but it helped. My mother still asks people what they read to determine their worth as a friend. At 79, she’s still looking for a satisfactory answer.
I started reading books again thanks to the library. I was living in Vienna when it occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d read a book. Searching through my Kindle collection of abandoned books, I saw that Murakami’s 1Q84 was the last book I’d started and abandoned. Did I simply not have time to read them? Were they not interesting to me? Or was it something essential, something basic: The smell of ink and glue, the crack of the spine, the silvery rustle of a turning page, the weight of the creation in my hands. I went to the Vienna City Library, where there is a small but decent foreign language section. I found 1Q84 in English and, after bringing it home to read, quickly noticed that I had absolutely no stamina. My eyes darted all over the page. My mind wandered. At the end of a paragraph, I’d have forgotten how it began. I decided to approach it like a new skill, and I set manageable daily goals. 1 page. 2 pages. 15 minutes. 2 chapters. After I reached my goal of reading for 30 minutes at a time, and after I’d read about 100 pages of the book, my inner monologue reversed. Just get through 20 minutes became just one chapter more, ok now just one more. It didn’t take long for the English section at the Vienna library to become small and unsatisfying. I began buying books instead, building a library of my own. (Incidentally, my roommate at that time had a moderate collection of books, which I enjoyed looking through. Many of them were in German, but she did have a few copies of English books. One of them, covered with dust and way at the bottom, was Dahl’s Matilda. I didn’t feel moved to read it again, but it was a comfort to know it was there.)
In a recent text conversation with my niece, she asked me what I was reading. Glancing over at a stack of library books on my coffee table, I laughed to myself. The stack contained a couple of novels, a book of scientific essays, several history books, and a collection of short stories. Though I miss my book collection dearly (it sits boxed up in Vienna), my favorite thing about being back in an American city for the next two years is having access to a full English library. In my house, stacks of what would appear to be randomly chosen books rotate every month or so. Some are involving or entertaining cover-to-cover reads, some are research for my own writing, and some are just pure curiosity. Not having a simple answer to text back to her, I took a picture of the stack of books and sent it. My throat caught and I smiled as I read her response: “You remind me of Matilda.” Almost, I thought.
Computers and phones are still very much a part of my life, but I try to be deliberate about which parts they occupy. Just like anyone, I lose time with YouTube, clickbait and endless scrolling. I still get my news through apps, and I binge watch TV shows on streaming services. But reading is my baseline. Books have given meaning and depth to my experience of life in a way that nothing else has. The state of my brain while reading is calm without being sleepy and focused without being hurried. And while sitting and reading for hours can be stressful on my body, the walk I go on to afterward is more colorful because of those hours. But hasn’t reading always been something we modern humans just do? It’s only recently that smartphones have invaded our innermost spaces, soaking up our time and attention, robbing us of the leisure of discovery. Despite this, technology has gifted me in the most unforeseen of ways: the library app. Although I love browsing through the stacks, whenever there’s a specific book I want to read, it takes nothing more than a few swipes, and the book is ready for pick up a few days later. It’s nearly telekinetic.
Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash