Wednesday, December 11, 2013

READING by Joyce Kiefer

I was sitting around the kitchen table with a half dozen women friends from college, and we were making a list of good reads for one of us – Donna – who was about to have knee surgery.  Donna had asked each of us to suggest a good book for her convalescence.  An avid reader, she considered her recovery time as a good excuse to read non-stop - anything -  fiction, nonfiction, history, light, heavy.   She wanted to surround herself with a smorgasbord of books.

Joan, a newspaper writer, took down our suggestions.  She queried each of us. Suggest three books, she said.  “Shadow of the Wind,” I offered. “The masterpiece by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. The very end let me down, but what a poetic, mystical ride!  The story involves a library.” 

"You'd love "People of the Book," Donna replied.  “Geraldine Brooks.”

How about "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson ?" I started to describe its stark characters and setting.

"Already read it," said Donna.  

I ended with “The Book Thief.” “The presentation is key.  I’ll say no more.”  Neither did she.  Somehow her book club missed that best seller by Markus Zusak.  The movie hadn't come out yet.

We continued around the table.  The shocker came when we got to Jeannie.  She and I had been classmates in an honors Western Civ course.  We read everything from Homer to Wittgenstein and Hume.  I envied her insights, how she got the points that I missed.  But now all she could suggest was  "Peter Pan."  “Yes,” I said, “You must have found J.M. Barrie a fascinating writer, making an allegory of his refusal to acknowledge himself as an adult.  "Maybe," Jeannie replied.  "But my life is so busy with grandkids (over a dozen), that I don't have time to read for myself."  

I was further amazed when Mary, another honors classmate, agreed.  She has no time to read either. And Charlotte confessed she did so much required reading in college (between 3 and 6 a.m. because her roommates were quiet then), that she never wants to read another book.  She does read the paper end to end to keep up to date.

I was shocked because reading is an essential part of my own life. I assumed these old friends – intelligent women all – shared the same passion. How could they turn their backs on history, well-crafted stories, the classics, the opportunity to engage with new ideas?  Did the personal curiosity of these former teachers freeze at graduation?  

My mother taught me that reading is an art.  When I was little, she would open a new book I’d received as a gift, run her finger down the title page to flatten it to the spine, and say, “See?  It smells like a new book.”  Then she’d turn to the dedication, read it, and explain, “This is the person who inspired the author.”  Next, she would turn to the table of contents.  “Here’s what’s waiting for us.”  Finally, she would slowly turn to Page 1 and begin the story.  She taught me to savor a book, not speed through it. 

She also showed me that books are organic.  “Protect the spine, or the book will fall apart,” Mom would caution.  “The leaves are the sheets of paper with the printed page on each side and they’re made from trees.”  As she read to me, it seemed that real people bloomed from those leaves.

I’ve always enjoyed scanning other people’s bookshelves, even as a kid.  The contents tell me what their owners like to explore, the stories they treasure, the ideas that tweak their minds. 

A built-in bookshelf next to a used brick fireplace sold me on the first house we bought.  We still live there.

Chasing down a physical book is part of the fun of reading.  First of all, there’s the literary buffet offered by a brick and mortar bookstore.  On my way to the travel section of one favorite store, I had to stop and sample the cookbooks on display and thumb through the selections on the best seller table before I reached my destination. I was looking for guidebooks to Turkey but couldn’t resist Uzbekistan.   How would I get around if I were going there instead of Turkey?  What would I see?  Of what should I be aware?    Finally I returned to the Turkey shelf and looked for Rick Steves.

Then there’s the library treasure hunt.   My book club decided to read “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” by Deborah Bloom. I didn’t want to own this title. Anyone snooping my bookshelf might suspect a Lucrezia Borgia side to my personality.  I didn’t want the book on my iPad, either.  Something contaminating about that.  All the copies were checked out of my local library.  I had one alternative: the library at Stanford University where I have borrowing privileges.  What could be sweeter than the joy of wallowing in seven million books?  

The Poisoner’s Handbook was available but I had to hunt it down somewhere in the basement of the main library. Once I stepped down there, I followed the arrows along a dimly lit aisle to the South Stacks.  Then I stepped round the corner into a darker underground wing.  Finally I found the right neighborhood of call letters, but my number range was missing.  I refused to give up.  I spotted a couple of aides with a book cart.  Surely one could help but I thought how strange it would be to say, I’m looking for “the Poisoner’s Handbook.”  Can you help me find it?”  Perhaps one aide would chat me up while the other pushed a panic button.  Or they would wave me off to the Chemistry Department.  But I was on a mission and I finally found the Poisoner’s Handbook on a lower shelf in a dark corner.

A friend who’s an engineer said no one needs books anymore.  Everything is on the internet and the young generation knows this.   But my ten-year-old granddaughter would disagree.  She inherited the bookworm gene.  Her friends know she loves to read and gave her gift cards for her birthday to the one bookstore in her town.  She showed me the stack of books she chose, picked one up, and read me the story outline on the flaps. 

“Tempt me,” I said, as we were eating lunch.  “Read me a little bit of the first chapter.”  She opened the book carefully, smoothed down the page, and began to read.

Joyce Kiefer is a long-time member of the A-Z Writing Group formerly known as Kepler's Writing Group.  Her poetry has been published in several anthologies and she writes columns for several websites, as well as her own blog:


  1. Thanks, Joyce, for reminding me why I love to read.

  2. What a joyful thing this essay is -- a love letter to books, to reading, and to all of us.

  3. Thank you. I love the slow build of a book and feel that you should nurture the story not rush it. What an enlightening piece of writing.