Reading, Alone

A lifetime of books made me who I am, for better or worse

Photo: Sirinarth Mekvorawuth / EyeEm via Getty Images

The day before they left, my wife and I found a brief, quiet moment to share an embrace in the kitchen. I told her how much I would miss her and miss the kids, how sorry I was that my work schedule meant I couldn’t accompany them on their spring break vacation, how lonely I would be without them around. Ten days. Ten long days. What would I do with myself? My wife said, “You’ll be fine. You’ll be happy being alone. Alone with your thoughts.”

I didn’t respond. I didn’t try to counter what she was saying or feign a halfhearted denial. Instead I just hugged her body against mine, tight, tighter still, as if I could press her into me and through me.

The older I get, the stronger I feel that solitude is a measure of a life. Who are you when you’re alone? I’m probably reading, I think to myself, though I know this doesn’t quite answer the question.

A lifelong reader should, perhaps, be able to recall the first book they read. I don’t. I remember a tattered hardcover, all browns and yellows on the cover, a cowboy hat, horses, a fence — a western for young readers of some sort. I stretched out in the bottom bunk and invented a story aloud as I moved my eyes across the cryptic marks on the page, because that’s what I saw everyone else in my house doing, and I wanted to be just like them. As I moved my eyes and heard my voice, I was. I felt safe and snug lying there alone, connected to the family I loved. Not really reading. Just pretending.

I have a photo in which I’m just a few years old, looking up from a Richie Rich comics digest. Again, I’m probably too young to be reading in the truest sense of the word — I’m likely just looking at sequential images, doing my best to patch together a narrative of my own design. Just pretending. My family was at our summer cottage, where we spent the happiest days of my childhood, days that still coil like smoke through my memory, filling me with ghostly warmth. I see happiness in my sun-kissed face and sun-bleached hair, in my relaxed posture of contentment, and even in the bandaid on my forearm marking some brambly adventure through the undergrowth. But, I think, maybe, just maybe, I see something else in my eyes in that photo: a dark glint of disdain at having to pause for a picture, at an imagination interrupted. The brief, heartless glare of solitude’s end. A reader who just wants to keep reading, alone.

When my wife and kids have gone, I read hungrily, greedily, thankful that my reading is not guilt-tinged with a sense of neglectfulness. I gobble up American War, by Omar El Akkad, and the last few chapters of The Names, by Don DeLillo, which I had started in the summer but didn’t really want to finish because it would mean I have no more of his novels left to read. I marvel over a few essays in Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

I also finish Stoner, by John Williams, a novel chronicling the life of William Stoner, as he escapes poverty on the prairies of the American Midwest, falls in love with English literature at university, and ultimately devotes his life to studying and teaching it, for better and for worse.

How I came to Stoner (or how the book came to me) is an example of the countless serendipitous moments that make up a life well read. Williams’s first novel, Butcher’s Crossing, was mentioned on the back cover of Paul Howarth’s Only Killers and Thieves, a book I had finished a few weeks prior and was still trying to get my head around. Williams was on my radar, and when I saw Stoner on the discount rack at the university bookstore, I didn’t need much convincing; I felt the tingle of the happy accident. Readers know this sensation well. It’s there in the line or passage that gives you pause because you are momentarily convinced it was written just for you, or it’s the book next to the book you were looking for in the library — the book that ends up being more meaningful or useful than the one that you were hunting for in the stacks.

Stoner contains one of my favorite descriptions of the complex pleasures of solitary reading:

He spent most of each day in the library…His eyes burned from their concentration upon dim texts, his mind was heavy with what it observed, and his fingers tingled numbly from the retained feel of old leather and board and paper; but he was open to the world through which for a moment he walked, and he found some joy in it.

This sense of reading both closing you off and opening you up at the same time is precisely what makes me tremendously proud and also sad about my life’s work.

In his essay “The Memory Hole,” Michael Chabon equates lost memories of his children, the inevitable evaporation of the quotidian and the boring, with the seemingly endless flow of children’s artwork (much of which he ends up throwing away). For Chabon:

Every day is like a kid’s drawing, offered to you with a strange mixture of ceremoniousness and offhand disregard, yours for the keeping. Some of the days are rich and complicated, others inscrutable, others little more than a stray gray mark on a ragged page. Some you manage to hang on to, though your reasons for doing so are often hard to fathom.

I, too, think a lot about what I hold on to and what I let go of when it comes to my own family, especially the gaps or rifts that I am responsible for. I suspect the memory holes are my doing, not in terms of discarded artwork, but in the shelves and stacks and ramparts of books that surround me. I think of all the lost connections when I am up in my office, reading, alone, or when I am hiding in plain view, mind inside a book. All those pages. All those little moments. Gone. I think of fumbling and misweaving all the thin ties that bind us. That dark glint of disdain that I know I’m capable of.

Back to Stoner. At the risk of spoiling the ending of a book more than fifty years old, I quote here the final passage in the novel. An aged, dying Stoner is alone in his bed. In the last moments of his life, he scans the “jumble” of books on his bedside table and finds “the familiar red cover” of a book he wrote as a younger man:

It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there.

He opened the book; and as he did so it became not his own. He let his fingers riffle through the pages and felt a tingling, as if those pages were alive. The tingling came through his fingers and coursed through his flesh and bone; he was minutely aware of it, and he waited until it contained him, until the old excitement that was like terror fixed him where he lay. The sunlight, passing his window, shone upon the page, and he could not see what was written there.

The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room.

Alone, with his book — the book he wrote—he realizes that it meant something mostly to him and him alone. His death is a lonely one, just him and his book. No family. No touch, no human contact. It is frightening and sad. Pathetic, even. I also happen to find it authentic and strangely beautiful. “Excitement that was like terror” is the best description of what reading feels like that I have ever come across.

I’m a professor, and last semester I was interviewed for the university website. They sent a photographer to take a few pictures. I felt more than a little ridiculous; it was hard to look directly into the camera. The photographer had a suggestion.

“Just sit over there and pretend to read something,” he said, as if this image would be the truest explanation of who I am and what I do. I didn’t disagree. I didn’t say anything. I picked up a book and sat down. Just pretending.

You can’t see my eyes in the photo.

I meet my family at the airport.

I embrace them each in turn, hugging and smelling them, finding their scents beneath the stale cabin air that lingers after their long flight.

I want to tell them I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being so lost in myself, so lost to myself, and to each of you, so often. I’m sorry for not looking up from my books and for sometimes only half-listening when you’re trying to talk to me because I just want to finish this passage (can I please just finish this passage?). I’m sorry for sometimes not even looking you in the eye when you speak to me because I just have to get to the end of this sentence, this page, this chapter. I’m sorry for all those casual acts of heartlessness and for all those little moments, lost. I’m sorry that, when you were away, I found pockets of happiness where I wasn’t lonely at all, sometimes for hours at a time, where I sat and read and was perfectly content, and didn’t worry or even think about the three of you. I want to give you my whole heart, but I don’t think that’s possible. I’m sorry.

The tricky thing is, if I say all of that, I would also have to say this: I’m not sorry, because all of this reading has made me who I am, the person you know, the father I hope you admire.

If I apologize for all the time I’ve spent alone, reading, then what would I say to that toddler in the bottom bunk conjuring visions in the air? To that boy languidly flipping through the digest at the summer cabin before he even understood how words worked? To the kid reading comics in the tree in his backyard, weaving invisible pathways through biting air to futures unknown that were waiting for him across the frozen garden and fence and train tracks and foothills to the west? To the boy who stacked The Lord of the Rings on his desk in fifth grade because he was so proud of himself and could hardly believe what he was capable of and how far books could transport him?

If I apologized, what would I say to the teenager in the library hunting with aimless desperation for he knew not what, needing a book because he had to have something to clutch white-knuckled in the darkness? To the young graduate student who read things he didn’t understand just so he could strike them off some secret list that he thought he might one day have to produce to prove that he belonged? To the new dad who bought Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for his newborn son, just to have it ready, rereading the whole thing one night while his son slept upstairs, both of them dreaming of bedtimes to come? To the man who read the last page of As I Lay Dying and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so he started over from the beginning? To the anxious father who finds that his convictions won’t hold still because he can’t stop thinking about the last thing he read?

These versions of myself are still out there somewhere, still turning pages, still open and closed to the world around them. Alone, but not always lonely. I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry. I think you—my family—know and love these versions of myself too, even though you’ve never met them.

Of course, I don’t say any of this to my wife and kids. I just hold them — all of them, my past selves too — close, closer still, as tightly as I can.

English Professor. Author of "Conspiracy of One," a small book of short stories, and “The Coward," a collection of essays.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store