Books throw us into the world as much as they give us a break from it. Now that summer is here, I remember the special pleasure of lying and reading on the grass. It is a memory of adolescence, filled with sensuality: toes curled against green softness; the sun, hot on bare feet; the book—Jane Eyre, or The God of Small Things perhaps—was held up so as not to reflect the face. But it also has an ethical charge. I read, as many young women did, to learn how to be a strong woman in an oppressive world, how to channel my anger and let it take me outside, away from the pettiness of family squabbles; how to allow the body’s needs and desires to play without shame.
Think of Jane Eyre herself. The novel opens with Jane researching Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds, reading her way to the bleak shores of Lapland and Siberia, and through the centuries of winter, “happy in my way at least,” happy to be able to escape imaginatively from the oppression of the present, where she is tormented by her aunt and cousin. When her cousin John bumps into her and scolds her for reading the family books (“They’re mine”), she gains confidence by reading about the Romans to counter his spirit: “You’re like a murderer—you’re like a Slave Driver—you’re like roman emperors!!”
Jane becomes an archetype for many other restless young women who read their way out of constrictive worlds. How many of us have longed to speak her speeches, like this one to her cruel aunt: “How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I? Because that’s the truth.” So often the act of reading has a special intensity for young women. It is part of the development of the self with bodily life.
Martha Quest, the eponymous heroine of Doris Lessing’s coming-of-age novel, “read the same books over and over again, between intervals of distracted reverie, in a trance of recognition, and always in the same place, under a big tree that was her refuge through which the heat pumped like a narcotic “. Marta eats while reading, taking in oranges and words. Lila and Lenù, in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, pick up a copy of Little Women and meet in the courtyard to “read it, either silently, side by side, or aloud,” so many times “that the book became tattered and stained with sweat “.
In recent years, I’ve been thinking about how to recapture the intensity of that early reading. Often the students I teach complain that learning English has taken away the pleasure of reading; that years of spotting similes and metaphors and lexical fields have stopped them from caring about the characters or being influenced by the language they’re analyzing. It’s not just the pleasure that’s lost here, it’s the urgency—the hope that reading can help us navigate a world full of conflict and repression and make us change it.
My response was to try to recapture that intensity in my adult reading: to allow myself to read without needing to; to occasionally focus exclusively on the work of one writer; to argue with dead authors who sometimes seem more alive to me than many of my friends. In 2015, I began a two-year reading of Doris Lessing. I just had a miscarriage; I was becoming unhappy in my marriage; I went to too many weddings and was disturbed by the happiness they implied. I was beginning to realize that the model I had been sold of achievement followed by reward was false, and Lessing seemed an unexpectedly vital guide as I entered this new, middle stage of life and accepted the place of failure. and disappointment.
Her era-defining 1962 novel The Golden Notebook is about a woman trying to reconcile her political and personal life. It is a novel written in multiple voices (a collage of notebooks created to describe different aspects of the heroine’s life), including everything from dreams to newspaper stories to psychoanalytic sessions to fiction drafts. With her many voices and styles, she spoke to me intellectually, but also as a woman in that period of my life. It allowed me to take boredom, irritation, and alienation seriously as part of my imaginative life, and—at a time when I felt constricted by marriage and the social constraints of my world—it set an expectation of freedom. “I’m only interested in stretching myself,” writes Lessing’s narrator, “in living as fully as I can.” What it would be like to live like that, I wondered, and wrote a book about Lessing’s various ideas of sexual, political, psychoanalytic, and ecological freedom.
Those years were exciting and disturbing. I still don’t know if Lessing is somehow responsible for the end of my marriage. She certainly made me more honest with myself and others. But it was some time after that before I wanted to write about a writer again.
I was contracted to write about DH Lawrence during a brief period of passion for him in my 30s, but turned away from him as I became more immersed in feminist writing, finding myself drawn to reading by women. I have taught Lawrence ever since and found my students’ reluctant passion for his female characters inspiring. Now it was time to write my book, and I found that what I learned about myself as a reader through Lessing’s book suggested new ways of connecting my academic identity with my commitment to reading pleasure and self-discovery. I started at the beginning – with his novel The White Peacock and his celebration of the English countryside in spring. I found that the urgency of his writing about animals and nature spoke directly to our times. And then Covid kicked in and I found myself hastily renting a flat in London and moving with my children to the Oxfordshire countryside to be closer to my partner and have a garden.
I was suddenly immersed in landscapes uncannily similar to those Lawrence described so well. Reading my way through Lawrence’s novels, essays, letters and poems in the hours available during isolated babysitting, I found that everything around me seemed to come from a Lawrence novel: our urban cat catching a mouse for the first time, the birds singing outside my windows (into the future, he would say). Lawrence’s combinations of exuberant rapture and full intellectual acumen articulated the possibilities of the moment. It became clear that this will again be a book that brings me into a close dialogue with another author.
“Certain words are alive, actively alive,” says Checkout 19’s narrator Claire-Louise Bennett, “in fact, they seem written as you read them.” Released in 2021, Checkout 19 is a novel, but it also belongs to a genre of writing that has blossomed in recent years, sometimes known as “bibliomemoir,” in which authors chart their lives through books. It is a work about adolescent reading that becomes a book about the role of reading in creating oneself and life.
Adolescence is in the novel precisely because reading at that age is so fiery. Bennett is obsessed with reading as a bodily act; she is fascinated by misreading, daydreaming while reading, what is remembered and what is forgotten, the way our “rather fervent” desire to turn the pages of a book leads us to skim the last sentences on the page. “For books are not absolutely dead things,” he quotes Milton as writing, “but they contain within them the power of life to be as active as that soul whose offspring they are.” Books reveal the world to readers, but they also change readers and change the world around them. We create the text we read, she says. “And isn’t the opposite also true – that the pages you read revive you? Page turner, page turner. Yes, that’s how I continued to live. To live and die and live and die, left side, right side, and on.”
Books create us, we live and die on the pages. I suppose I knew it as a teenager, lying on the grass in the park, as Jane Eyre does and as Lila and Lenù do. More explicitly non-fictional bibliomemoirs published in the last decade have tested the limits of this process. Samantha Ellis explores childhood and adolescence in How to Be a Heroine, reading the books that shaped her. In retrospect, she realizes that The Little Mermaid helped her deal with her parents’ fears after emigrating from Iraq: “the terrors of displacement, separation and loss.” He sees that she was afraid of womanhood, afraid that when “brave, smart, creative girls” like Anne of Green Gables and Jo March become women, they become less of themselves.
In her 2019 book, The Lost Properties of Love, Sophie Ratcliffe reads Anna Karenina while wondering whether or not to have an affair. “That’s what books do. They change lives,” she writes, making us aware of how dangerous reading can be as she reflects on how an affair is “an attempt to live twice…it exists behind a door you think no one else has noticed.” Books also determine life decisions in Nell Stevens’ 2019 book Mrs. Gaskell and I. Stevens earned her PhD in Victorian literature when she found herself in daily dialogue with Elizabeth Gaskell, searching between the lines of Gaskell’s letters and fiction for bits of her secret desire for a not-quite lover at the same time that Stevens herself was embarking on and then mourning her love affair. . In the end – very calm, having just had her ovary removed – she finds herself conversing with her heroine’s ghost, asking her: “Should I use a sperm donor and have a baby, alone?”
New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead was older and less resourceful when she began writing My Life in Middlemarch. She loved Middlemarch as an adolescent because it helped her to wonder “how on earth one can control one’s unbearable, overpowering, private longings”. In middle age, she found that this book that was so good about the middle – about the paths that didn’t work and disappointment – spoke to her with an almost disturbing directness. Mead has recently become a stepfather and is drawn to George Eliot’s experiences as a stepmother in middle age, seeing it as part of the novel’s “pull”. Now she has discovered that reading is not the form of escape that she once thought, but a place where “a person finds himself”: “There are books that seem to understand us as much as we understand them.”
What if other people’s sites are so powerful that they take over, taking over our own voice? This question preoccupies journalist Nilanjana Roy in her 2016 collection of essays, The Girl Who Ate Books. Roy connects reading with eating, as did Lessing and Virginia Woolf (in On Being Ill Woolf talks about words that give scent and distill taste, coming to us “first sensually, through the palate and nostrils”). She interviews various fellow Indian writers accused of plagiarism and then becomes obsessed with it herself. “On one occasion, I read my column in the press, chilled by the conviction that I had already come across those paragraphs,” she writes, only to discover that she had in fact plagiarized herself.
Worrying about plagiarism, Roy hints at the dangers of too much reading. The best bibliomemoirs bring ambivalence to their readership. Maybe it’s not healthy or sane to grow up thinking you’re Jane Eyre, or to almost have an affair because you’re prompted by Anna Karenina, or, in my case, to pay more attention to the tightness in my marriage because of Doris Lessing. Elif Batuman ends her deftly wayward 2011 bibliomemoir Obsessed by insisting that if she could “start over today, I would choose literature again. If the answers are out there in the world or the universe, I still think we’ll find them there.” But she has said in recent interviews that she has since become more aware of how crowded and double-edged it can be for books to overwhelm life. Her recent autobiographical novel Either/Or grapples with her undergraduate reading and finds herself guilty of being lured into an overly aesthetic vision of life—captured by beauty, losing her sense of having a political role.
For other readers and writers, reading is itself a political act. There is no talk of aestheticism in Azar Nafisi’s 2003 book Reading Lolita in Tehran, which describes Nafisi’s attempt, after being expelled from the university, to establish a secret, egalitarian community of women by reading together and writing a collective journal of their responses. Throwing off their headscarves, they read Lolita and compare Humbert to Ayatollah Khomeini: “They tried to shape others according to their dreams and desires, but Nabokov, through his portrait of Humbert, exposed all the solipsists who take over other people’s lives.” .”
The special appeal of Nafisi’s book is that it offers us reading as a collective experience. Similarly, Sarah Chihaya, Merve Emre, Katherine Hill and Jill Richards experimented with a literal form of collective critique in their Empowering Letters (2020), consisting of letters between the four of them as they read the Neapolitan Quartet. Selby Wynn Schwartz, meanwhile, is more explicit in casting her narrator as a sort of chorus in her Booker Prize-longlisted novel After Sappho, a series of vignettes of literary lesbians from Sappho to 1928.
For me, reading Lawrence showed a way away from today’s polarized politics, because he was so willing to allow contradictory thoughts to coexist, to push each thought to the extreme to test it, and then think the opposite. Lawrence has a lot to be angry about (his attacks on gender essentialism and racial hierarchy, his denial of his wife Frida’s maternal identity). But from him I also learned to find antagonism productive, and I realized how difficult it was for me as a woman to accept anger – my own and other people’s. Back to Jane Eyre. “How dare I, Mrs. Reed? How dare I?” Those cadences shaped my adolescence, but it wasn’t until now that I got to the point where I could say them.
Lara Feigel is the author of Look! We passed! – Living with DH Lawrence (Bloomsbury).