Living Out Loud: : Reading

Maybe it will change your life

On New Year's Eve, I had the pleasure of revisiting some old friends. That night my bookcases were lined up in my hallway and I was unpacking my books. I came across Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and I had to stop for awhile and read a few pages from each book. It had simply been too long.

I live in the old Roanoke apartment building in Clifton, and for the past nine months it's been going through some major renovations. That's good and bad. The good part is that the building is finally getting a facelift after decades of neglect. The bad part is that it's taken forever to get the work completed.

For the past nine months, I've been living in a mess. Pictures had to be taken off the walls, because the walls needed plastering.

Closets had to be emptied and kept empty for the installation of new water pipes. The worse thing of all: My books had to be removed from their selves in the hallway and stacked on the floor in my study for new drywall to be hung. That was misery for me.

But the nightmare is over. A few weeks ago I moved into a finished apartment in the same building. It felt good to get back to a normal life, and being able to get to my books is part of that life. It was a total pleasure for me to stay home on New Year's Eve, unpack my books and come across wonderful memories.

I unpacked Son Rise, written in 1976 by Barry Neil Kaufman. It's the true account of his young son's autism and how he and his wife Suzi successfully reach their "unreachable" child. It's an awe-inspiring book. When I put Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road back on the shelf, I thought to myself that no darker book has ever been written — but none smarter. When I came across Raymond Carver's Cathedral, I had to stop and read that title story yet again.

I keep hearing that reading is very much on the decline in this world and I don't understand why. Why would someone want to be watching Survivor on television when they could be reading Ann Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter? Is it more fun to go to the movies and pay big bucks to see a god-awful film like Racing Stripes than it is to stay home and read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and actually learn something? I guess I just don't get it.

Good books can change your life, or at least they have mine. In 1999 I stumbled across Richard Ford's Wildlife in a bargain bin. When I read it, I knew I was reading a book by an author that wants to make every word count, and I've been playing catch-up ever since. His words on the page inspire me to be a better writer. So does Ruth Ozeki. My Year of Meats shows just how good creative writing can be. Let's be honest here: Has anyone read J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and ever looked at life the same way again?

I'm probably on a soapbox. I'll stop.

Some weeks back in this column, I wrote about New Year resolutions. I thought about adding a new one to the list this year. While I encourage everybody I know to read, I really get tired of loaning books to friends and never getting them back. I've lost track of how many books I've lost over the years. But maybe I should be thankful that they like the books so much that they decide to keep them. I'm doubtful if this resolution sticks around for very long. When I find good words, I like to share them.

Three years ago I loaned Richard Ford's Woman with Men to a friend. Every once in awhile I've asked him if he enjoyed the book. He still hasn't gotten around to reading it. Gee, shouldn't you just return it?

But it's all right, my friend, you keep the book. I bought another copy. Someday, you'll get around to reading it. Maybe it will change your life.

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