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American Imago 61.1 (2004) 77-87
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The Reading Cure:
Books as Lifetime Companions
"When my son committed suicide I got through life reading the collected works of Jane Austen."
My daughter calls me every Sunday from her Brooklyn home, and I instantly start to talk to her about the current two books in my life: one the book I am reading, the other the book I am listening to, an audiobook. She gets impatient with me. She wonders why I am transforming a personal telephone chat into a professional literary discussion—she is a professor of literature. I explain to her that discussing books is to me an intensely personal matter. She enjoys discussing the vicissitudes of personal relationships. So do I, namely those of the characters in my books. Books are my best, my most faithful, my most reliable friends. People have to meet rather high standards to match my books in terms of being good company.
I am talking in the present, but books have always had that role. I remember thinking in my adolescence that life would be meaningless without books, and I have not changed my mind. I lead two parallel lives, one my so-called real life, and the other my literary life, which is sometimes the more compelling one.
I read books for companionship, for enjoyment, for solace, for information, for distraction, for self-improvement, for self-knowledge, for understanding, for enlarging my world, for enhancing my compassion and empathy with totally different others. I now hope to give some flesh to these initial [End Page 77] thoughts and show you the crucial role books have played in my life.
I grew up in Vienna, and my childhood was filled with mainly German books; but not entirely so because even then, between 1930 and 1940, many foreign-language books for children and young adults were translated into German. As an aside, I want to mention difficulties that translations can make: In Alice in Wonderland, that enchanting childhood book, there is a story of a mouse, telling a tale, and Alice while listening sees a mouse tail, a pun not possible in German. I only understood the joke the second time around, when I read the book in English to my children. By the way, the opportunity for a second time around for all one's childhood favorite books is certainly a major pleasure of childrearing. For me it was practically the best part, along with generally introducing my children to the love of books.
Books were a different matter in my childhood from what they are for my grandchildren. One did not get them inexpensively in garage sales, nor could one borrow them from the local libraries, as is customary now. There were no public libraries. We got books for birthdays, for formal occasions; they were to be treasured. I was perhaps eleven years old when I received from my grandfather, who could be relied upon to finance special gifts for my birthdays, a complete collection of Andersen's fairy tales (translated into German, of course), and many of those tales laid a foundation for the things I would later grow to care about. They were sober-looking books, in two volumes, with just a few woodcuts, yet they became extremely precious. Who would not acquire compassion for impoverished children after reading "The Little Match Girl"? "The Little Mermaid" was another favorite; and imagine, I found myself crying, when, thirty years later, I read it to my children. That the singing mermaid permanently lost her beautiful voice as the price for being loved by the prince was a much better lesson than those derived from the Grimm fairy tales, where getting the Prince is a goal beyond which there are no further obstacles or consequences. Then there was little Gerda from Andersen's "The Snowqueen" who sets out on courageous adventures to rescue her boyfriend. Was it her adventures or the rescue part that so fired my imagination? On [End Page 78] a recent trip to Sweden I finally had the opportunity...