Friday, July 30, 2010

Paula Bomer, On Reading

"Like many people of my generation, I was taught to read in the first grade. My teacher, Miss Buzolich, was a wiry, elderly woman with a grey, permed helmet of hair and glasses, who wore respectable shirt dresses and had a penchant for spanking. She also barked out her lessons. That said, she liked me, as I was a good, well behaved student. Fittingly, my earliest memories of reading coincide with my earliest memories of experiencing excruciating, debilitating anxiety. I was intensely afraid of Miss Buzolich and on occasion became unable to move or speak in fear of her rages. Sticking my nose in a book and being thoroughly transported to another world was a wonderful antidote to the terror of the classroom.

I learned to read quite easily and remember being terribly bored with the learn-to-read books. They came in different colors for different levels, yellow and orange being beginner books, green and blue and purple becoming more advanced. I graduated to real books quickly. Our family thought of reading as a privilege and a pleasure, not as a chore. One of the great joys of my childhood, met with tons of excitement, was going to the library before our summer vacation in a cabin on Lake Michigan. We were allowed to check out many books, as many as we wanted, and this was the equivalent to being let lose in a candy store. Once we were at the lake, we swam, played in the sand, and read endlessly.

In high school and college and thereafter, I read a great deal. I read for the pleasure of it still, the being deeply involved in other worlds, the joy of imagining a whole alternate reality in my head from the words on the page. I learned to read critically, as well, which I enjoyed for its quite different feeling, that of doing pushups for the brain, as reading critically felt muscular and vigorous. I think 'big' readers, people who read a lot, often do so to escape the world around them. I feel this is a great example of our faults being tied to our strengths. Social anxiety can be ignored when your nose is in a book. The actual act of reading is almost against being with people.

In high school, English classes and Creative Writing classes were my favorites. I loved studying Shakespeare, loved Catcher in the Rye and Great Expectations and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. I think it was junior year I had a feminist, quite possibly lesbian, teacher where we read Chaucer alongside Alice Walker. My senior year I lived in Spain, and read Gabriel Garcia Marques, Borges, Cortazar, Puig and others in Spanish. It was in Spain where I also first read Hemingway. On my own, I had read all the works of Toni Morrison and it was during my teens and early twenties that I was interested in the modernist tradition, reading lots of Faulkner and other 'languagey' writers. That said, in college, I was obsessed with Jean Rhys and Anaïs Nin’s diaries. I didn’t study literature in college, I studied psychology and anthropology, with a few literature classes thrown in as electives.

After college, I moved to New York and worked in book publishing. I had to read books I would never have read otherwise and had to read two of them a week working as a foreign scout. I didn’t manage this job for very long. It broke my heart not to read what I wanted, not to read books that mattered to me, as most of what I read wasn’t very good. A large part of my life was taken away from me. I became seriously anxious and depressed. (And yet I did discover some contemporary writers who were wonderful, for instance, when I read The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers and recommended him highly to all of our European clients.)

I vividly remember quitting the scouting job and becoming a bartender. Suddenly, almost miraculously, the anxiety and depression lifted. I had more free time and that time I could spend reading whatever I wanted. I had time to read David Copperfield. I read Madame Bovary, Chekhov, Lolita, Paul and Jane Bowles. I read lots of Denis Johnson, huge amounts of Philip Roth. I reread Flannery O’Connor’s short stories as well as her two short novels. I reread Jean Rhys. And then I read Mary Gaitskill’s first story collection, Bad Behavior, and that was when I knew: I wanted to do this, I wanted to be a writer. I had been writing stories since high school, but I had never articulated, not even to myself, what it was I wanted to do. Reading Mary Gaitskill changed that. I applied to graduate programs in Creative Writing.

Reading is intricately tied to what I consider my vocation. I may read less than I did when I was younger, but I still more or less read daily, often for hours. Right now, I’m deeply engrossed in a series of books called the Cazalet Chronicles, by Jane Elizabeth Howard, the woman for whom Kingsley Amis left his wife. In their entirety, they consist of nearly 2000 pages. I am halfway through and in love—I just bought her biography—and a little perplexed as to why some of her work is out of print. This is maybe one of the reasons why I read-to experience love, joy, hilarity, pain, fear, anguish, hate-but to do it safely within my imagination. Maybe being a reader is in some ways an act of cowardice, because experiencing the emotional lives of characters is not as risky as experiencing them in real life. Or one could explain it more generously by calling reading a safe way of expressing voyeuristic tendencies. I have no doubt that, quite simply, mankind is wired to tell and listen to stories.

I have gone through times of despair where I wish I had chosen any other thing to do with my life, anything not so lonely. Reading a lot does not give one very great social skills. It’s sort of a self fulfilling prophesy-you read a lot to escape the world, and the less you are in the world, the less good you are at being in it, which makes you want to escape, and so on and so forth. And at other times, times like now, I am at total peace with being a reader and a writer. I’ve made my bed, so now I lie in it, with a book, of course."

Paula Bomer is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, Baby And Other Stories (Word Riot Press, Dec 2010). Her fiction has appeared in Open City, Fiction, The New York Tyrant, The Mississippi Review and elsewhere. She's the co-publisher at Artistically Declined Press and the supervising editor of the literary journal, Sententia. Visit her website here.}


  1. This is wonderful. Thanks Paula... touching and really honest and thoughtful. I love Miss Buzolich -- is that really her name? And the gold bug variations! I had to immediately put a hold on that at the library. That's the best title. And the last paragraph is perfect.

  2. Thanks Ken- I look forward to your contribution! And thanks again to Shome for asking me to do this.

  3. Thanks so much for reading, Scott.