Reading Matters

The abiding bliss of great literature

A particular novel transported me last week. For days, I lived in another realm, as if I were a child again.

I was so gripped and consumed, I was reminded of that time when encountering another world on the page was new, and the power and magic of the printed word could lift me out of myself, out of my room and fly me to another dimension.

What happened was this: I read a long novel (530 pages) I thought I didn’t have time to read. But it was my book club’s April pick, and because it was assigned, and because I had paid good money for it, I had the necessary requisites for indulgence.

The novel, No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list, is Anthony Doerr’s stunningly developed and gorgeously written “All the Light We Cannot See,” a 2014 National Book Award finalist, set in France and in Germany during World War II.

Other novels in the last couple of years have certainly gripped me. Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl,” for instance. But for me, that novel lacked the necessary power to transport.

A week or so ago, I encountered another example of transport. Raleigh novelist Kim Church listed her five most memorable books, which ran on my blog. One was “A Room for Cathy” by Catherine Woolley. In this 1956 children’s classic, Cathy, who longs for her own room, creates private spaces with pieces of fabric and with concrete-block-and-board bookcases.

As a child, Church had no room of her own either, and she described how she created sanctuaries in a makeshift tree house, in the way-back of her mother’s station wagon, in her grandfather’s tool shed, in the woods, in the middle of an empty field.

Isn’t that exactly what a good novel does? No matter the lack of real or imagined space in your life, a great novel creates a sanctuary for you and you alone, a sanctuary where no clocks tick, no weeds grow, no one and nothing tugs.

For a solid week, if I could grab 10 minutes, I read “All the Light We Cannot See.” Half an hour with the book was bliss. An hour before sleep, ecstasy.

All her life, my mother steeped herself in good literature. Confined to bed her last two years, she could climb out of her narrow room and onto a larger landscape only she could see. Wordsworth’s daffodils still bloomed for her, and Coleridge’s “sunny pleasure dome” always glowed.

I recommend it. Transport. Bliss. The magical elixir of great and abiding literature.


Five books that transported me

1. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Fritz Kredel.

2. The Far Side of Paradise: A Biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Arthur Mizener.

3. The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.

4. The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty.

5. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson