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July 22, 2008

Beth Gutcheon: Reading Alone and Together

Posted by carol
Today, guest blogger Beth Gutcheon ruminates on why reading is even better as a shared pastime. Beth's most recent novel, Good-Bye and Amen, is on sale today. She is also the author of Leeway Cottage, More Than You Know, Five Fortunes, Saying Grace, Domestic Pleasures, Still Missing, and The New Girls.

When I was growing up, my friend Mary McClintock and I were addicted to Oz books. We lived in a town that valued sports and fresh air much more highly than "having your nose in a book," so we had to find places to hide. Our best place was a closet I shared with my sister. It had built-in shoe niches you could climb like a ladder, and then shelves above, nice and roomy. We used to scramble up to the top with The Patchwork Girl of Oz, and The Emerald City of Oz, and a supply of Triscuits and read all day. Periodically the adults would thunder by below, looking for us, to try to make us go out and play Kick the Can or something horrible. But they never found us, and the only real problem was that it got hot up there because we were so close to the light bulb.

For my whole life, reading has been a deeply private pleasure that is even better shared. Mary and I inhabited Oz to the point that we made up our own episodes whenever we were together. We looked like normal eight-year-olds going about our business, but in reality I was in possession of a blue pearl that could make me invisible and Mary had a pink pearl that enabled her to fly --- and we were usually on a dangerous quest through the caverns of the Gnome King. We thought the Gnome King was compulsively funny, with his little stick legs and his body like a basketball and his terrible temper that made him both frightening and ridiculous.

We went on to dog books and horse books and then a Jalna book binge. Does anyone even remember the Jalna books? Then, college was a feast of reading books that your friends were also reading. The excitement of those sophomoric discussions of, I don't know, Hannah Arendt, at breakfast was very great. It took me the longest time to realize that the unfamiliar feeling of lack, or loneliness, that puzzled me in my early married life was this: For the first time in my life, no one was reading the same books I was.

My whole life changed when my friend Marcia invited me to join her quilting group. This was the '70s, when all the husbands were scared rigid when their wives went out together without the men along. Absolutely convinced that we were going to burn our underwear and refuse to cook any more and run off to join Amazon communes. "Quilting group" sounded unthreatening, but really what it was, was a book group. We all brought hand-sewing and there was some random conversation about quilt patterns or how to do trapunto, which I knew a lot about in those days, but the real point was that we met, we sewed quietly, and someone read Pride and Prejudice aloud. It was heaven. It was like an enlarged version of reading Oz books in the closet with Mary, except by then we knew a lot more and the cookies were better.

The good that book groups do is immeasurable, I believe. Getting readers into bookstores is good for readers and writers. Reading in groups is good because in groups we support each other in what we knew as children, that reading helps us get through the days with a greater understanding and sense of wonder at the lives that other people lead. It makes our worlds bigger. Reading, and talking about what we are reading, gives us a keener sense that what is going on in the minds of each one of us is important and has wide-ranging effects on the world.

We still live in a world where someone thinks you aren't doing anything when you have your nose in a book. Reading groups give cover to those of us who know we are doing something when we're reading. And reading groups give us deadlines, which are very good because they help us give ourselves permission to read when some internal scold says we should be saving the world. Reading helps us save the world, because it widens our experience far beyond what one human being can learn firsthand.

So I salute you, and thank you for the important work you are doing for readers and books --- and for helping to save the planet from those Mrs. Grundys who want to know why we have our noses in books and think we should go out and play Kick the Can.

---Beth Gutcheon