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Lit Matters: Reading Ahead

by Emily Sinclair

There is always a book and notebook nearby. Always has been. In kindergarten, I brought a notebook to school every day, eager to write, until finally in April, the teacher told me to stop bringing it: writing wasn’t until first grade. Then, in first grade, I got in trouble in reading circle for ‘reading ahead’ but I was engrossed: Would Sally give Dan the ball? When Dan said, Go, Sally, run fast, would she?

Who knows what makes a reader or writer? For me, much of it is cellular: as a child, I read early and often. I do not know a time when I didn’t read. My best moments with my mother were when she read to me—she, a depressive who spent much time in bed, smelling of lotion, her freckled hand holding the book open, and explaining to me what a moor was and why English children walked on them. I carried a book everywhere and learned to read under my desk in school, under the table at dinner, while walking, while in a tree. In fifth grade, I started my first novel, about a girl who ran away from home.

225797-MAt home, things weren’t so good. My father was dying, my mother a fragile and self-centered creature who never did much see beyond her own needs. But the library was two blocks from our house and I spent hours there. My mother took me to the bookstore anytime I wanted, the only rule being that I had to buy really big books that would last me at least a couple days, which was her way of trying to make my reading habits slightly more cost-effective.

In time, books became a kind of surrogate parent to me. Harriet the Spy taught me to observe, that adults lead private, interesting lives. In high school, I read Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and came away with, “Follow your inclinations with due regard to the policeman round the corner,” which was about the best advice I ever had and kept me out of some trouble in high school. When, at seventeen, I read Jack Kerouac’s line from On the Road –“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”–I found the courage to go to Columbia University instead of the University of Texas, and I knew then that I’d never go home and would have to make my own place in the world.

I go to museums, dance and music performances, and plays, but the thing about them is, you have to go. The ballerinas and oil paintings aren’t there for you in the middle of a sleepless night, or next to the sofa on a snowy afternoon. So much art is a public thing: you stand or sit with others, taking it in. Reading and writing are unique among the arts because like nothing else, we are both alone and together with the voices of other. We read and write to become fully human in the way that only we can—through language.

Why were books and stories so important? When did it become important to set down impressions of my own life, to make up stories about other people, to write about things I don’t understand? These are impossible questions to answer: Why do we love who and what we love? The answers really only mask the mysteries temporarily.

But perhaps this, from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory:

I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.

Emily Sinclair is a fiction writer and essayist. She serves on the faculty at Lighthouse.

This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted throughout the month of November, leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!


About Lighthouse Writers Workshop

Lighthouse Writers Workshop is the literary center for writers, readers, and literary gadabouts in the Rocky Mountain region.

7 comments on “Lit Matters: Reading Ahead

  1. Jenny Itell
    November 14, 2014

    Beautiful post! It makes me want to abandon everything I’m supposed to do today and instead sit and read!

  2. Patricia Grace King
    November 14, 2014

    I love this description of how reading — the reading of of particular novels — gives us courage to go out into the world, to make our own way, to leave behind the safe and familiar. In a way, that’s what a good story is all about.

  3. EmilyS
    November 14, 2014

    Thanks, Jenny and Patricia. You know what’s funny? None of the books I thought of as I wrote this–and there were so many–were assigned in school. So many of the books that have mattered so deeply in my life were nothing more than what we called ‘pleasure reading’. (As if there is any other kind 🙂

  4. bethsgallery
    November 14, 2014

    Amazing to read this, Emily! Thanks for sharing it. This quote:

    “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

    has always been my favorite quote from literature, not because it’s the wisest or most eloquent, but because it reminds me to live fully and with passion! Well, maybe those are the wisest words.

  5. EmilyS
    November 14, 2014

    Thanks, Beth!

  6. Shari Caudron
    November 17, 2014

    I love, love, love this Emily. This madness for books and words and story chooses us–we don’t have any say in the matter. And thank god it’s writing that wanted us –and not, say, Nascar. You articulate the love for the act of writing as well as its end result so well. Thank you.

  7. Angel Logue
    November 19, 2014

    You are so right about the portability factor of both our joy in reading, and craft of writing. I played the piano from about 5 until I went away for high school, and I LOVED it. I’ve often wondered why I quit playing, but reading this made me realize that the time I stopped coincides exactly with the time that the doors to the world of literature and writing really opened for me. The bulky, uncomfortable piano had no chance against against the discovery of Scott Fitzgerald, Flannery O’Connor and Joseph Conrad…in bed!

    Thank you so much, Emily, for this lovely piece that made me think and realize how it was that I ended up on this particular road.

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This entry was posted on November 14, 2014 by in Good Books, Writing and tagged , , , , , , .

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