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Famous Bookworms Reveal Joys, Thrills Experienced in Reading

January 17, 1987|BOB SIPCHEN

Once upon a time, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. found himself stranded in the Virgin Islands with nothing to read. This was unsettling.

"Then I noticed a page stuck in a shrub," said the author of a dozen novels, including "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Galapagos." Vonnegut retrieved the weathered scrap. Then another bush caught his eye. More pages.

"It was like an Easter egg hunt," he said. "I found other pages in a pool. I fished them out and dried them and began patching it all together."

No Cultural Clout?

Not everyone will understand why Vonnegut was "relieved and delighted" by the discovery of that literary litter. Predictions that the video revolution will be reading's coup de grace date back at least to Marshall McLuhan, and in some circles books have already lost all cultural clout.

As comedian Jay Leno explained: "Here in L.A. we don't call them books. We call them cordless miniseries." Like Vonnegut, however, Leno, his wife, Mavis, and an eclectic assortment of other bookworms contacted for this article, contend that reading is still worthwhile and pleasurable. They even argue that it's possible to spend a whole weekend comfortably absorbed in a good book.

Some Novelistic License

These die-hards offered their comments on the joys of reading mainly by telephone. But for the sake of a good read, let's exercise some novelistic license. Let's imagine they ran into each other one dark and stormy weekend at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park and sat there by the fire, favorite books in hand, talking and reading into the night.

"One of my wife's big complaints is that people will see you reading a book and come over and sit down to talk, just assuming that you're lonely," said Leno. "Obviously you must be bored or shy. 'Why aren't you out playing tennis?' "

"It's not a very popular way to spend time," Vonnegut conceded. "But an awful lot of archaic pastimes are still practiced--people still play musical instruments and get a lot of pleasure out of it."

In Vonnegut's novel "Jailbird," a character is described as reading "the way a young cannibal might eat the hearts of brave old enemies. Their magic would become hers."

Vonnegut himself views reading as "a form of meditation." And it's "far superior to the Oriental scheme" of meditation, in which people use their own consciousness, he said.

"We meditate with the minds of others--with brains that are often better than our own, and surely brains that have seen more than we'll ever see."

That day in the Virgin Islands, the pages Vonnegut pieced together turned out to be a memoir by author Andre Gide.

"So I sat there, with nobody else around, and I was meditating with the brain of a Frenchman. . . .

"The printed book is a wonderful science-fiction invention. It's so portable, needs no batteries and fits into a coat pocket."

At this point in the weekend interlude, people who had been sitting on the lodge's sofas and chairs began drifting toward the fire to join the conversation.

"A book is a time machine," said Jim Trelease, who wrote the "Read Aloud Handbook," and is now on a crusade to instill a love of reading in children. "If a travel agency offered travel back or ahead in time, the line would be around the corner. Yet the public library offers that trip every day."

"The library is not a serious place," announced Ray Bradbury, whose fiction has whisked readers off to all sorts of futures--including one in which society so fears the power of books that it burns them.

Libraries Are Playgrounds

In fact, "the library is a maelstrom. When I talk to students, I tell them, plunge into it like a bunch of apes; like you were climbing Kilimanjaro or going to Alpha Centauri. Libraries are joyful, explosive, hysterical! They're playgrounds!"

The wind lowed in the Ahwahnee's rock chimney, and everyone stared into the fire, thinking back on their own childhoods and the books that transported and transformed them when they were young.

We'll say that Richard Rodriguez, author of the autobiography "Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez," was the first to speak.

"There are all kinds of sensations one experiences in picking up a book--the smell and the feel, the quality of the silence when one is reading," he said in a very soft voice, absently thumbing through a volume of poetry perhaps.

This past Christmas, some small thing reminded Rodriguez of the first time he read the "Grapes of Wrath." Instantly his mind filled not only with the sensuous richness of Steinbeck's vineyards, but also with the memory of sitting in his bedroom with the book in hand as the first scent of dinner wafted up the stairway.

"You hear your brothers and sisters playing outside. The vague yells of childhood. And you are plunged back into that . . ., " he said.

Jim Trelease would have picked up the thought.

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