I read a lot. I have always read a lot. It started one warm sunny summer afternoon when I was five. My grandmother was reading “The Wizard of the Emerald City” to me (Russian version of “The Wizard of Oz”), but had to set it down because, as usual, household chores beckoned (this was some years before she started enlisting me and came to the swift conclusion that my lack of floor scrubbing and chicken plucking skills will never land me a husband.) She put the book on a piano stool (a piano in that time and place was mandatory; I was not encouraged to touch it). I circled it for a bit, unsure of how much trouble I will earn myself for touching a library book, but simply dying to know what happened when Ellie, Totoshka, and the gang encountered the savage сannibal. I picked up the book and managed to put enough letters together to get through the rest of the chapter. In my mind’s eye, I still see how the setting sun was streaming through the windows (we had northern exposure in our one room).
And my most enduring, most comforting, most enriching, most faithful, most influential past time was born. I have never stopped reading, not through years of university, child-rearing, long hours at work. Backpacking through Europe at 19, I would go without a meal to spend what seemed like an extraordinary amount of money on English-language paperbacks in non-English speaking countries to read on trains (added bonus—lost weight). I would choose the most pages for the money, which was not always the best literary value, alas.
My reading practices, however, changed over the decades. As a child, if I liked a book, I would read and reread it. I would go back, flip through pages, land on a random passage, read from that point, look for favorite passages, reread those, and so on. This might explain why occasional quotes from “The Three Musketeers” or “Twelve Chairs” or even Chekhov’s short stories still come to me unbidden, but a book I read a month ago is so thoroughly forgotten that I might not recall either the title, the author, or the plot today (I mean you, “Where the Crawdads Sing”. No offense).
At some point, quality fell somewhat of a victim to quantity. You know those Goodreads challenges, to read 50 books a year? (Well, that’s the challenge I set for myself every year—doesn’t everyone? A book a week, with a couple of weeks off for binge-watching Netflix seems very reasonable.) But why such a rush? Is it because a friend said once, “I haven’t even read 1,000 books!” in a self-horrified manner? But, that was probably about 20 years ago, so I have hit the quasi-magic number by now. Or is it just because there is an embarrassment of riches out there? I do not want to miss out on something great, and so gulp books down like Lindor truffles.
But I miss the reflection. And what I really, really miss is the change in my relationship with books.
When I was a child, I read like a child. The literary characters were my friends. They lived in my imagination, and they were my counterlife. I lived in their world, and they lived in mine.
In my childhood, the counterlife was galloping through the vaguely unimaginable streets of Paris with the musketeers. It was pure fantasy, as I never expected to walk the streets of Paris any more than I expected to walk on the surface of the moon. When Did the Arc de Triomphe Start Leaning? – Old Lady Writing
At some point, and I do not know when exactly that border into adulthood was crossed—and the crossing was, I imagine, inevitable—book characters stopped appearing in my reality. Or, more accurately, I stopped going into theirs. A certain detachment occurred where, while I remain entertained, enlightened, educated, and generally touched (and occasionally irritated and even bored) by what I read for pleasure, it is no longer my alternate reality. It is just that—entertainment, education, etc. It is enough—of course it is enough, there are so many great books that I have read and have yet to read—but I sometimes miss that untamed fantasyland of my childhood, where every story was examined through the lens of how it could play out in counterlife, and where I tried every character on for size as a potential friend or alter ego.
It is unavoidable and logical, but it is occasionally sad when I stop and think about it. That wild inventiveness would be very helpful right now, as the global pandemic still rages, theaters are still closed, and non-fictional friends are still remote. This might be a good time to work on breathing new life into the counterlife…
 Thank you for introducing this term in “The Glass Hotel”, Emily St. John Mandel. I have always said “parallel universe”, but that implies, I think, something more impossible rather than improbable.
 I might add that the vast majority of my childhood literary heroes were male. I am of the generation and culture that was not bothered by that. In the childhood reenactments that I held with my girlfriends, we WERE the musketeers. I even won the top prize at a school New Year’s party, dressed as a musketeer in a costume made by my mom, wielding a plastic rapier, and performing the famous “Song about the sword”. What did I win? Probably an orange. Valor and Glory of the Motorbuilders – Old Lady Writing
One thought on “So Many Books, So Little Time”
I never forgot the moment when I woke up one morning and you were already sitting in bed reading Разноцветная азбука.
And also when I met you and grandma in Moscow after Евпатория, and you were reading the store signs as we were riding a bus thru the city. You were 5