Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, Lynn Sharon Schwartz, 1996

Picked this book up in a used book store and read it this week, though not easily. Was not very interested in her childhood in Brooklyn and almost abandoned the book but it picked up in the final quarter as she addressed reading and the key questions of why read and how to decide what to read next.  She listed the following reasons for reading:  pure and specific curiosity, for facts, for a ‘delectable exercise for the mind’.  She finally decides that ‘only language thrills’ and though she forgets most of what she’s read, she’s left with an inchoate sense of the texture and dynamics of the subject.” She identified the tension between randomly reading and reading according to a plan, but decides to follow the John Cagish random approach because it echoes life.  “At times the ramifications of choice verge on the metaphysical, the moral, even the absurd.” “The question of judgment, of who is worth reading and what constitutes the tradition has grown difficult and complex.”  She addresses the problem of whether one must read a book passed along by a friend and answers, ‘not every one.”  Along the way she mentions some of her favorites:  The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Middlemarch, The Millstone by Margaret Drabble, stories by William Maxwell, Pavese, and Natalia Ginzburg (whom Schwartz translated), and Calvino’s “On a Winter’s Night a Traveler”.  She adds Proust, Herbert Morris’s poetry, and Robert Walser’s idiosyncratic essays; Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and Housekeeping also come in for praise. She concludes that ‘reading teaches receptivity, Keats’ negative capability.  It teaches us to receive, in stillness and attentiveness, a voice possessed temporarily, on loan… Reading gives a context for experience, a myriad of contexts.”  A good book, but not a great one.