University of Baltimore Asst. Prof. and Bohemian Rhapsody Columnist Marion Winik comes to understand why she’s addicted to reading fiction — her motivation may surprise you.
On the sidewalk of St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans sat a girl in a low folding beach chair. Dragged by her mother to the Mardi Gras parade, she insisted on bringing her book. No matter how people teased or tried to distract her, she calmly read the whole time, even as glittery throws and oversized go-cups landed in her lap.
“Hey, leave the kid alone,” I said. I could have sat right down beside her with a book of stories by Ellen Gilchrist, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams or Victory over Japan, some of them set in the very mansions of St. Charles Boulevard in front of which we partiers had arrayed ourselves. My love of New Orleans has as much to do with those stories as with the city itself, with Gilchrist’s dangerous, extravagant, smart and fierce Southern women: Rhoda Manning and Nora Jane Whittington, Miss Crystal and her maid Traceleen.
While I was visiting my friend Sue at the beach in Rhode Island, she asked for the name of my favorite novel. I can never answer this question. Most of the time, I read for company, as a cure for loneliness. The people in books are so available, so instantly intimate, so open with their thoughts and feelings. They don’t hide their complications; they reveal their secrets. The plot demands it. Character development demands it. People made by people are just easier to grasp than people made by biology.
At that moment on Narragansett Bay, I was facing a little character development issue, feeling unsure if I and my entourage were becoming a burden to our hostess. What was Sue thinking? Did she like the weird salad I made with the leftover corn? I did not like it that much myself, though I manfully chowed it down, eyeing the kernels she had shuttled to the side of her plate. Did she wish we were leaving Tuesday instead of Wednesday? On the page, I certainly would have known. In real life, it was better to let it go than bring it up, as with most of my paranoid imaginings.
Almost everything I understand about people, I infer from books. If I did not have recourse to literature, I would be unaware of both the complexity and the familiarity of other people’s inner lives. I would not know we all rolled on the piled-up coats on the bed during our parents’ parties, I would not know how universally confusing it is to have sex the first time, I would not know how insecure we all are, how judgmental, how terrified, how rash, how fragile. What about the strange things people do when they are alone, things you would have no other way of knowing are so widespread? Books are no less than an underground railroad of information as far as bathrooms and bedrooms and odd compulsions are concerned.
One night in my 20s, I found myself in the apartment of a guy I’d had a crush on in college. Waiting for him to come home from work, I read The World According to Garp in his bed, a mattress on an apartment floor in Raleigh. It was a night of strange penises, one surprisingly little one that was at least still attached to its owner, the other infamously severed in one of the world’s most gruesome literary car accident. I remember them equally well.
More dependable, more comprehensible, just as real in retrospect, not to mention immortal — perhaps this is why we memoirists are trying so hard to turn ourselves into characters, why we take with us as many people as we can. It is a transformation like that of the Velveteen Rabbit, who becomes real when he is loved. Except that even when the Velveteen Rabbit was not real by his own standards, he was just as real to me as the bunny outside my window right now, sprinting for the hedge.
An interesting note has arrived from Sue, with whom I have shared a draft of the preceding.
“The salad wasn’t weird at all,” she writes, “though a tiny bit too sweet for my taste (from the salsa?). You weren’t a burden and your stay through Wednesday was just right. But you could have just asked, Dopehead!”
Someone could, maybe. But this Marion Winik character is a writer and prefers a more circuitous route, involving essays and emails.
For my relationship with the written word, I give all blame and thanks to my mother, who picked up eight new books from the Ocean Township Public Library every two weeks without fail. She died in April 2008 surrounded by her beloveds: me, my sister, and the newest novels by Walter Mosley, Clive Cussler and James Patterson. Us she loved, but those cops and spies and murderers and private dicks were her kind of people. Living alone the last 23 years of her life, this was the crowd she shared her martini with at the end of the day. It was a funeral in itself to return them unread to the library.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.