Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Suitable Book

When I was small, I envied my mother's ability to float away from us in a book, sitting within reach but oblivious to what went on around her. She never sprawled when she read, always sat upright, often in a wooden rocking chair. Seemingly poised for action, she truly was out of touch. She had tuned us out.

I resented that when I got older. Long before she was able to physically leave us alone, she had perfected the art of going away, while sitting in a chair with a book. Without alcohol or pills, my mother had found a means of escape that was as total as any other drug.

Then I began to feel contempt for that action as I got older. My mother's reading was banal stuff, mysteries and big fat novels. She sent some of them on to me when I married--James Clavell, R.M. Delafield, Trevanian. How could anybody fade away from experience in favor of this bilge, I'd ask myself, still too respectful and fearful to ask her.

"I can stand anything as long as I can read,' she told my sister at the end of her life, and read a book a day until her body agreed to begin its dying. "Is she reading?" is a question I asked over the phone with more urgency than "Is she eating?" I knew my mother could live without food, but never without books. When she stopped reading, I knew she was on her way out.

"I won't know what I'm going to feel when you die until you're dead," I told my mother once. I didn't expect the emptiness that I fell into when she was dead, a weird, hollow feeling that is worse than active grief and that didn't want to go away.

I felt it most often when I thought of books and she would come to mind. I remembered how many hours of how many years I saw her roaming through pages of print, no matter what crisis consumed the rest of her attention. I went to the library and borrowed two fat novels.

Neither of them are books I would naturally gravitate to. They were all plot, all story, written well enough to keep me from wanting to hurl them against a wall. I picked up James Lee Burke one afternoon and read steadily until the book had ended. The next night I read a frothy satire about a family wedding in Maine. I began to feel better; the words were filling up that empty space.

Last night it was Huckleberry Finn. Tonight I'll spend with an old friend, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy--and that will stay with me for several nights. I'll feel centered by the story and the words and the companionship--and I may turn occasionally from the book to say "Stop reading over my shoulder." My mother will understand. These are words she often said to me.

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