I used to think of reading novels as a basic necessity, like food, water, and shelter. Novels were also my friends. Some were fun, some were wise. Reading novels was necessary, I thought, to build a conscious mind.
Beginning in my mid-teens, I took on, in no particular order, a lot of big classics, including Russians (viz Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky), Brits (Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Elliot, Hardy, Joyce, Woolf), French (Proust), Germans (Mann), and Americans (Twain, Melville, Hawthorne, Conrad, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Wharton, James, Wolfe, Faulkner, Salinger). In the seventies and eighties, I read many great books of the previous or current generation, including Nabokov, Roth, Updike, Heller, Cheever, Naipaul, Pynchon, Bellow, Vonnegut, Stone, DeLillo, Gardner, Kennedy, Davies,and Millhauser. At times I had enthusiasms for genres, including espionage (Le Carre), hard boiled (Chandler), mysteries (Christie), sci fi (LeGuin), historical (P. O’Brien), and horror (King). And on and on.
And then it was over. I didn’t suddenly stop reading, but at some point it was no longer necessary for me to have a novel near to hand. No, it was worse than that: I lost my faith in novels. I was no longer sure they were a good investment. Perhaps it was because of new circumstances in my life (too busy? but I was always busy), or maybe the change reflected a shift in the larger culture. Could the era of literature be ending? I’m not sure. But in bookshops, when I looked at the fiction shelves, instead of seeing endless exciting possibilities, as I used to do, I was struck by the opposite — masses of books that, I felt, would probably do nothing for me.
I shifted my non-professional reading diet to mostly history, biography, science, and journalism, along with poetry. I began applying a tough filter for taking on fiction: only books that I thought might be transformative or unforgettable make the cut. I continued to find such ones from time to time (McEwan, T. Wolfe, M. Amis, Spencer, Roth, Eugenides, Shteyngart, Yates). But not every day — or week, or month.
A couple of weeks ago I found another. For Labor Day weekend, Sally and I took a diving trip to Providenciales, Turks and Caicos. I’d just read the first rapturous reviews of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and decided to pick it up in an airport bookshop. On the trip down, it was nowhere to be found (though it was in the front of all airport bookstores by the following weekend). Therefore, I went to Plan B. As soon as we got to Provo, I downloaded it onto the iPad — my first contemporary enovel.
It is a great book for a long sandy beach with palm trees, blue skies, and turquoise water, but also a great book for a long plane trip, or extended insomnia. It contains multiple lives, with problems you know well (like painful family relationships, loneliness, global environmental disasters), in settings you know well (various American cities) but have never seen from these angles. It requires no conscious effort, though you pause now and again to note the incredible craftsmanship (no visible strings or joints). Reading it is like living a different life. And when you emerge, it makes you grateful to have your own life.
On our diving days in Provo we left the Royal West Indies hotel at 8:00 a.m. and returned around 3:00, after two dives and a good number of nautical miles. Then, exhausted, we’d sit on the beach or by the pool and read for long periods. From time to time, we’d take a dip to cool off or have a rum drink. It was sweet.
Of course, not perfect. My new reading technology, the iPad, did not work in direct sunlight, so I read some paper books as well. I also had to address some diving technology glitches. On day two, I decided to try to perfect my weighting, which required obtaining more lead from the boat, which required swimming against the current, which led to falling behind the group and working to catch up, which led to over exertion, overuse of oxygen, mild narcosis at 100 feet, problems reading gauges, an out-of-air emergency, sharing air with Sal, and, back on the boat, loss of all stomach contents. On another dive my octo malfunctioned and started rapidly dumping air. We had to abbreviate that dive, but had some good sightings.
We had close and rewarding encounters with several reef sharks, sea turtles, barracuda, and countless luminous small fish. Unfortunately, we saw many lion fish, which are spectacular looking but poisonous and horribly destructive of the reef ecosystem. In areas, the coral was dead, a ghostly white. But there were large, healthy areas, with bizarre shapes and bright colors of otherworldly beauty.