Ruined by Reading

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Ruined by Reading, Schwartz immediately engages her reader in a conversation about books and reading. This literary autobiography provides no specific dates or hard information. Her parents and grandparents are presented in family context, but without names. Schwartz is a professional writer, but she does not provide the titles of her novels, when and where they were published, or how they were received. The jacket copy informs the reader that Schwartz’s novels Disturbances in the Field (1983) and The Fatigue Artist (1995) are “acclaimed.” She tells how her elder daughter taught the younger to read, but her courtship, marriage, and the history of her adult family are not provided. What Schwartz does give is a loving, detailed look at her life as a reader of books. Her musings are both abstract, based in extensive critical and philosophical reading, and pungently concrete, always intimately tied to Schwartz herself.

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books begins in confrontation with a Buddhist scholar, quoted in The New York Times, who claims that the reading of many books interferes with the development of the individual soul. Schwartz weighs this proposition, two square inches of newsprint, taken from her hometown paper, against her own development and the degree to which reading has shaped her life as a writer and an individual. To do this, she retreats to her earliest memories.

A precocious child, Schwartz learned to read at the age of three and a half, playing with the girl upstairs. She was called upon by her father to read from The New York Times to guests as a party trick. Her status as celebrity within her family depended upon this freak ability to read texts she could not yet understand. As she grew older, her status evaporated; everyone her age could read. Yet reading remained a magical pursuit for her, a process which linked breath and cabalistic symbols to sense. Years later, armed with sophisticated literary experience and education, Schwartz still turns to childhood experience as the key in her love of books and belief in the value of reading.

Schwartz makes a double demand of her readers. They must be widely read in a variety of texts, from Edgar Allan Poe and Ellery Queen through the philosophical discriminations of French literary critic Jacques Derrida. They must also be willing to enter her childhood bedroom, visit her grandmother, smell the pages and feel the bindings of her childhood books. The narrator expects a fundamental sympathy, a reader who can willingly enter the dialogue at any level.

Odd coincidences and intersections between the family environment and Schwartz’s reading occur in Ruined by Reading. The reticent emotional attitude of Schwartz’s parents cloaked major events such as death and marriage in mystery. As a young girl, the author was puzzled by the meaning of “Little Boy Blue,” Eugene Field’s sentimental poem about toys who faithfully await the return of a small boy who has died. In the same time period, two of her young cousins died, major events she does not explicitly remember, discovered in her later life through oblique family conversation. As a child, she did not connect the mystery of her reading and the family loss; as an adult, she ponders the juxtaposition of the actual deaths of two little boys and the repeated, bewildered reading of a poem, where such a death is lamented. Perhaps the poem allowed Schwartz to absorb emotions her family was unwilling to recognize.

Schwartz’s childhood reading came to her preselected in collected sets or through the magazines to which her parents subscribed. She remembers the stories which affected her and analyses the permutations in her memories of these texts over the years. She cites a few cases where she is able to confront a remembered text, rediscovered years later, with her original understanding of it. Some details are oddly rearranged, major points are forgotten in significant patterns. In the case of the set of Harvard Classics, “in black leather and gold trim,” the volume in which she read and reread Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales has disappeared from her possession not just once but twice. The story of “The Little Mermaid,” first read in this volume, underlies many musings about love and the importance of developing an individual voice. However, since translated versions of Andersen’s stories vary widely in precisely the kind of details she remembers, she cannot be sure whether her childhood readings inspired these musings or were retroactively misremembered due to them. Since the book is twice lost, the documentation is lost. There can be no confrontation with the text. Neither Schwartz nor her reader knows surely...

(The entire section is 1945 words.)