Separation and Sympathy in Shared Reading

Reading

I first noticed a split between my mom’s taste in literature and my own at the beginning of ninth grade. One of the first things we read in my English class was a short story by Fay Weldon about a woman who committed suicide without warning, though she seemed to be a perfect wife and mother. It was compressed, smart, descriptive, and rich; I thought it was brilliant.

I had just finished reading it on a rainy afternoon when I was overcome with the urge to share this story, which, I was convinced at the time, was the best thing ever. “Mom,” I said enthusiastically, “you have to read this.” I remember waiting for her reaction as she made her way through the three or four pages of the story, the same way that you wait for someone to listen to your favorite new CD or to taste the cookies you just made. I was almost heartbroken when she handed it back to me and said, “it’s very literature-y. Kind of depressing.” Well, yes, it was depressing, but it was also great. Why didn’t she like it?

That was the start of a split between my mom and me—or, rather, our reading material—that we haven’t been able to reconcile since. As I delved into Faulkner and Dickens, she stuck with Marian Keyes and Dean Koontz. In large part it was difficult because I had always thought of Mom as my reading buddy. At that time, we were the main readers of the household. It was my mom who had seen me all the way from Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham” to Michael Crichton. It was my mom with whom, in the absence of like-minded company, I could discuss the finer points of anything from “A Wrinkle In Time” to “October Sky.” She was part book club and part mentor.

We’d had plenty of experiences reading the same books. There was the winter when we both read “The Swiss Family Robinson,” cross-referencing our separate editions because the numbering of the chapters was different. The previous year, in eighth grade, I had read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” which was her favorite book when she was my age. That summer, we were in the middle of reading “The Catcher in the Rye,” a book my mom and I both plodded through despite the fact that neither of us liked it very much. Soon after that came the short story incident, when it became clear that we were heading in different directions.

We both knew, without saying anything, that we had entered separate universes. I was never rebellious by any stretch of the imagination, so swapping out Grisham for Faulkner was as close to an adolescent declaration of independence as I ever came. There came a point of distinct, irrevocable separation when I realized that she wasn’t going to follow me along the common path of Dante’s “Inferno” or accompany me through Whitman, just as there had come a point when I realized that she wasn’t going to follow me in to daycare and wasn’t going to help with my algebra homework.

Our differences will inevitably be reflected in what we read; if the books we read illustrate our personalities, it becomes all the more important to read uniquely. But reading together also draws us together into a world where each reader imagines their own unique vision of the book into existence. What you see when you read “Jane Eyre” is different from what I see. Each of our readings is colored by all the experiences that come before it—everything that has ever happened to us to make us distinctive individuals. But collaborative reading is a sympathetic, a democratic act; it unifies many experiences while valuing their distinctness. We coexist in this imaginary world of the book—a coexistence that allows us to understand the differences between our imaginations.

My mom and I have always been close, and that never really changed. We’ve always enjoyed cooking together, talking, listening to National Public Radio. And even as the connection of sharing the same reading started to wane as I started high school, that waning made the occasional book that we have shared since even more meaningful. Rather than having the same points of connection all the time, cherishing a special few makes them all the more worthwhile—makes us appreciate each other not so much for our commonalities as for the remarkably different people that we are. We have plans in the works to read Keith Richards’ autobiography together when I get home. It’s no “Green Eggs and Ham,” mind you, but I’m looking forward to it all the same.

—Columnist Spencer B.L. Lenfield can be reached at lenfield@college.harvard.edu.

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