Saturday, July 2, 2016

Rien Fertel, On Reading

I am an obsessive completist reader. Which is to say I read much like a collector amasses coins or comic books or rust-covered cast iron pans. I’ll read a book, and if I more than mildly enjoy it, there’s a good chance I’ll move on to another work by the same writer. Often, I’ll even follow an author’s oeuvre in chronological order, watching her/his skills grow then fade over time. I’ll then read a biography, followed by letters and unpublished diaries (I also do this with directors/movies). Last summer I did this with Flannery O’Connor. This summer I’m afraid I’ll do the same with Carson McCullers. Sometimes I convince myself that this is a productive, healthy way to read, and maybe it is. Taking in all that remains of a writer, in a way, allows you to live the life of that writer. But often it feels like a compulsion.

I know where this drive comes from, or at least I think I do. My grandmother read not only constantly but with a similar consistency. During family visits I’d stare up at her tall bookshelves and see all of Agatha Christie, every Dick Francis, each title by James Clavell (she enjoyed breezy, British-y beach reads obviously)—all neatly arranged, like  in a real library, throughout numerous rooms of her house. One summer, after telling her how much I enjoyed reading Pudd’nhead Wilson, she bought me the complete works of Mark Twain, in these matching hardcover volumes that shined so beautiful on my childhood bookshelves. I read all of Twain that summer, from The Innocents Abroad to all the lesser Tom Sawyers. But when the first volume of Twain’s Autobiography was published in 2010 I could not bring myself to complete my collection. Obsessions fade away, often with an intensity matching the way they once burned so bright. Perhaps I’ll return to Twain someday—I might even plow through some Dick Francis!—and that old compulsion could be renewed. But I’m hoping there’s a chance that I can reread Pudd’nhead Wilson and leave it at that. 

{Rien Fertel is the author of Imagining the Creole City and, most recently, The One True Barbecue. He lives in New Orleans.}