Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books

“Reading was the stable backdrop against which my life was played.”

After a lifetime of reading books and even writing a few, Lynne Sharon Schwartz (b. 1939) revisits her decisions to spend so much time, energy, and passion on this dubious hobby (obsession?).

Lying in the shadow of books, I brood on my reading habit. What is it all about? What am I doing it for? And the classic addict’s question, What is it doing for me?

In Ruined by Reading, Schwartz fingers qualities well-known to avid readers, like getting so deep into books we forget ourselves. Schwartz introduces the world to a perfect, wonderful thing called “the fear of being interrupted”, for which I, and many others, love her deeply.

It may have been from that moment that I contracted a phobia for which there is no name, the fear of being interrupted. 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 beside the point.

Of course, Schwartz’s real question is not “Did I waste my life reading?” but “What should I have been doing instead?” A weighted, worthy question, indeed. How is a life to be spent? What makes a “worthy” life?

Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius suggested we lead a “universe-worthy” life full of kindness, compassion, and honesty. Novelist Marilynne Robinson made her own thoughts on the matter exceedingly clear when she entitled her memoir When I Was a Child I Read Books.

I’ve never felt the compulsion to question my reading habit (who has time when there are books unread), but were I to, I might approach it similarly: dissecting each decision—to read or not to read—and pad each with ample book references. Only to discover the pleasure of reading anew.

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When Schwartz gave her parents a copy of Kafka’s The Trial, their response is so beautiful I must repeat it here:

‘That book you recommended,’ my father began with his customary abruptness. ‘By that Kafka. The Trial.’ ‘Yes?’ I said eagerly. ‘Did you read it?’ ‘Well, that’s what I’m calling you about. Your mother and I both read it and we have very different opinions about what it means. I say it’s about the injustice of the legal system and the modern state… She says it’s just about life itself, how you’re always guilty about something or other and you feel you deserve to be punished simply for being alive.’ He paused. My heart leaped. This was exactly what I wanted. We should theorize this way every waking hour.

To have such a penetrative dialogue with one’s parents. Or anyone. If that isn’t universe-worthy, I struggle to determine what is.1

I can vacillate lengthily, and foolishly, over whether to read at random (as I did on my bed in the fading light) or in some programmed way (as we all did in school). I like to cling to the principle that if randomness determines the universe it might as well determine my reading too; to impose order is to strain against the nature of things. Randomness continuing for long enough will yield its own pattern or allow a pattern to emerge organically, inscrutably, from within – or so I hope.

Walter Benjamin's card for Bibioteque nationale de France. Featured in Walter Benjamin's "Illuminations" in the Examined Life Library.
Walter Benjamin’s library card for the Biblioteque Nationale de France, 1940.

So, ultimately was Schwartz’s life ruined by reading? Could she have been doing something more noble? Does it matter?

Reading gives a context for experience, a myriad of contexts. Not only will we know any better what to do when the time comes, but we will not be taken unawares or in a void. When we are old and have everything stripped away, and grasp the vanity of having it and of grieving for its loss, yet remain bound in both vanity and grief, hugging the whole rotten package to our hearts in an antic, fierce embrace, we may think, King Lear, this has happened before, I am not in uncharted territory, now is my turn in the great procession.

Honor this wonderful book by gobbling up Alan Lightman’s In Praise of Wasting Time, Richard Feynman’s essays on the pleasures of scientific discovery, Wislawa Symborska’s light and perceptive book reviews of books no one will ever read, and, just for fun, Doris Lessing’s On Cats or Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs, exceptional writers on an exceptional topics.