The Joy of Reading

Periodically I’ll pick up Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis and read a few chapters. (Ironically, he wrote the book before being surprised in late life by finding love and marriage in the person of Joy Gresham.)

Today I was delighted to find that Lewis’ perspective on getting new books was very similar to my own. He loved to order them and have them arrive in the mail, much as I love to see the UPS driver approach my house with yet another box from Amazon.com.

Every man of my age has had in his youth one blessing for which our juniors may well envy him: we grew up in a world of cheap and abundant books. Your Everyman was then a bare shilling, and, what is more, always in stock; your World’s Classic, Muses’ Library, Home University Library, Temple Classic, Nelson’s French series, Bohn, and Longman’s Pocket Library, at proportionate prices. All the money I could spare went in postal orders to Messrs. Denny of the Strand. No days … were happier than those on which the afternoon post brought me a neat little parcel in dark gray paper.

I know that feeling exactly. Half the time I can’t even remember what I ordered, so it’s like a little present arrived. There is something indescribable in the feeling of holding a book I want to read but have not yet read. It’s as though there were a locked door separating me from understanding and I’ve suddenly been handed the key. The anticipation is joy. (And to paraphrase Albert Brooks as Jacques the French bowling instructor — the anticipation is sometimes better than the deed.)

Later Lewis describes his reverence for the very physicality of the book:

One other thing that [my friend] Arthur taught me was to love the bodies of books. I had always respected them. My brother and I might cut up stepladders without scruple; to have thumb-marked or dog’s-eared a book would have filled us with shame. But Arthur did not merely respect, he was enamored; and soon, I too. The set up of the page, the feel and smell of the paper, the differing sounds that different papers make as you turn the leaves, became sensuous delights. This revealed to me a flaw in [my teacher] Kirk. How often have I shuddered when he took a new classical text of mine in his gardener’s hands, bent back the boards till they creaked, and left his sign on every page.

This, also, is something I understand. The weight of a book in my hands, the smell of the glue binding it (if it’s paperback), the texture of the pages, the feel of its cover, the sight of its artwork — all of these contribute to my enjoyment of what I read. I’m convinced that a primary reason I loved The Catcher in the Rye in high school was because of the beautiful vertically-lined matte texture of its paperback cover and its spare white background simply adorned with only the title in black. Holden Caulfield’s antisocial adventures were nearly secondary to that. As silly as it sounds, missing the sensory gifts involved in reading a book is one reason I can’t do serious reading on the Kindle.

The other is this: unlike Lewis, I have no scruple whatsoever about writing in books I own. I love to mark them up. It allows what had been a one-sided conversation (author to me, reader) to become two-way, if only in my imagination. I like to take note of interesting passages, points with which I agree or disagree, unique perspectives on the world. I feel like I learn more that way.

I used to feel as Lewis did, and I, too, used to cringe whenever someone creased the spine of my paperback or dog-eared a page. I liked to leave a book so pristine that it seemed it had never been read. The change came about so gradually that I can’t place when I transformed from invisible reader to active one. All I can say is that it is gratifying to take ownership of my books. I’ve been surprised by that small joy.

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Categories: Brain Workouts

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