Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

In the early days of Novel Readings, one of the things I was trying to figure out was how non-academics wrote about books, or (a slight variation) how academics wrote about books for non-academic audiences. So I read a lot of what I very ingeniously (OK, very literally) called “Books About Books“: Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Sara Nelson’s So Many Books, So Little Time, John Sutherland’s How to Read a Novel, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, James Wood’s How Fiction Works. One that was always on my radar but that I somehow didn’t get hold of before I started focusing more on writing myself, instead of worrying about how other people wrote, was Ruined by Reading, by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I was particularly interested in this one, because Schwartz is the author of one of my favorite novels of all time, Disturbances in the Field–and now I would add that I am a huge admirer of her earlier novel Leaving Brooklyn, which I read for the first time only a couple of years ago. I was happily surprised to see  a copy of Ruined by Reading on the book rack at the school’s Spring Fair flea market this year: though it’s too bad Fred (whoever he is) didn’t want to keep such a nice gift from “Nanny and Poppy,” I think they would be glad to know it ended up with someone who appreciates it properly. And I did appreciate it. It’s part memoir, part meditation on the motives for, effects of, and–above all–the experience of reading. It’s loosely organized, associative rather than strictly logical, but Schwartz is too interesting and thoughtful a writer (and reader) for it to feel rambling, even though it ranges somewhat unpredictably across its array of topics.

There were lots of bits I particularly enjoyed or that made me feel a readerly kinship with Schwartz–her comments about “the fear of being interrupted” while reading, for instance:

Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by a panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand that I do something. Of course I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is bside the point. The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

Like her (maybe like you) I too “came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.” I understand, too, her love for Little Women–but unlike her, I never tried “copying it into a notebook” out of a fierce desire to possess it. “Only later did I understand,” she says, “that I wanted to have written Little Women, conceived and gestated it and felt its words delivered from my own pen.” I loved her closing peroration, about reading as an activity that matters because it is so completely, thoroughly “of the moment”: “the dynamism is all inside, an exalted, spiritual exercise so utterly engaging that we forget time and mortality along with all of life’s lesser woes, and simply bask in the everlasting present.” How amazing, “what a feat of transmission,” what is done by these marks on the the page. Because I had just been thinking quite a bit about choice in reading, though–about what to buy, what to read, why we make the choices we do, the section I appreciated the most was her discussion of “the convoluted agonies of choice.” Is it better to read contemporary books or “dead” books, to read by design or at random, to keep lists or to forget, to be a spider or a bee, a fox or a hedgehog? Ultimately, she concludes, “reading at random–letting desire lead–feels like the most faithful kind”:

In a bookstore, I leaf through the book next to the one I came to buy, and a sentence sets me quivering. I buy that one instead, or as well. A book comes in the mail and I begin it out of mild curiosity, to finish spellbound. A remark overheard on a bus reminds me of a book I meant to read last month. I hunt it up in the library and glance in passing at the old paperbacks on sale for twenty-five cents. There is the book so talked about in college–it was to have prepared me for life and here I have blundered through decades without it. Snatch it up quickly before it’s too late. And so what we read is as wayward and serendipitous as any taste or desire. Or perhaps randomness is not so random after all. Perhaps at every stage what we read is what we are, or what we are becoming, or desire.

7 thoughts on “Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

  1. Dorian Stuber June 22, 2012 / 11:56 am

    You certainly make this book sound appealing! And a definite yes to reading late at night. It is one of life’s greatest pleasures–yet always shadowed, for me, by the reckoning to come the next day…


  2. Mike Jones June 22, 2012 / 6:15 pm

    Thanks. I love this type of stuff. It lets me know I’m not alone in my petty reading pursuits and it is entertaining reading as well. I wrote a blog post about a similar subject here. OK, now I must search out this book, but who knows what the search will lead to.


  3. Rohan Maitzen June 23, 2012 / 5:00 pm

    It’s a rich little book, Dorian–but if you haven’t already read either of the novels of Schwarz’s I mentioned, I recommend them more highly!

    Mike–alone? Goodness no!

    No sooner did I type in her line about receiving a book in the mail and becoming spellbound than I received a copy of The Once and Future King in the mail which now has me entirely captivated, even though it’s a complete “aside” from the reading plans I thought I had before it arrived. (Sorry, Dud Avocado, you’ll have to wait–though I wasn’t enjoying you that much anyway, I fear.)


  4. Richard Berrow June 27, 2012 / 6:26 pm

    Ms Schwartz’s comment on marriage in Trollope, quoted in your linked review, leaves me keen to read her book, and wanting to hear more of your own thoughts about T. To me, he’s the most congenial Victorian novelist, and The Eustace Diamonds the most effective introduction to the Victorian novel for newcomers. Certainly for fellow lawyers. I say that not so much for the explication of the legal issues surrounding the necklace, as the cool, realistic depiction of human behaviour, instantly familiar and persuasive, though set in a much different social context to our own, How do your undergraduate students react to Trollope, I wonder? Of course his clear eye for the situation of Victorian women must be an attraction, but do his other virtues get any hearing, placed next to Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, et al? I wonder.


  5. Rohan Maitzen June 27, 2012 / 10:03 pm

    Richard, I wrote a bit about Trollope for Open Letters a couple of years ago that gives a pretty good idea of my thoughts about him–which coincide with your sense of his congeniality! Here’s the link:

    I have had mixed reactions from students. I taught He Knew He Was Right once in an upper-level seminar and they absolutely loved it. I have taught The Warden pretty regularly and some love it while others are bored by it. Just this year I did Barchester Towers, again to mixed reviews. I’ve only done The Eustace Diamonds for one class, a graduate seminar. Maybe I should try it again before too long–but I admit, I would not have thought of it as the best novel for starting someone out on the Victorians, partly because it is, in your words, “cool.” In my experience, his quieter virtues take longer to appreciate than the more flamboyant qualities of Bronte or Dickens. Opportunities for teaching the really long ones are few because I feel I can only assign a couple of real doorstoppers in any given class and typically the honor goes to Dickens and Eliot (or Thackeray, depending on the course). One day maybe I’ll propose an all-Trollope seminar and read a whole series, maybe the Palliser novels. That might be quite wonderful…if anyone signed up for it!


  6. Richard Berrow June 28, 2012 / 2:50 am

    Thank you for directing me to Second Glance. It is kind of you to take the time to share your thoughts with lay readers in this way. I think that assigning He Knew He Was Right was a brave act and am glad to hear it succeeded. I’m not surprised that the two Barchester books get mixed reviews from undergraduate readers; I wouldn’t have enjoyed them at 19 or 20 either, and alas wasn’t introduced to Trollope at UBC (BA Hons 1980). So far as I can tell Dickens and Thackeray are very little read nowadays even by people who read other old novels, outside the academy. My son, 17, was recently set Great Expectations and Jack Maggs to read together, and I’m pleased to see that he preferred the Dickens, unlike most of his peers. The E Diamonds is I think T’s most modern novel, because there’s that extra touch of structure and well-wrought suspense to the plot, arising from the influence of Woman in White, presumably, a more widely read (now) but inferior book. I am currently reading The Way We Live Now and enjoying it very much. It won’t displace Mansfield Park as the finest English novel, but is well worth reading. Incidentally have you read Fitzgerald’s Basil & Josephine stories? Nowadays published together, they were written for the slick magazines, and like Trollope’s books they demonstrate that art can be made to make a living. First Blood I consider brilliant.


  7. Amateur Reader (Tom) June 28, 2012 / 2:53 pm

    It does seem kind of Rohan at first, but soon enough you just take it for granted.

    Among book bloggers who read old books, Dickens does quite well, actually. Thackeray has been shrunk to a single book, but the book blog crowd is reading it. The sample in this post is not random and the books mentioned are aspirational but it mirrors what I see book bloggers actually reading.


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