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A WOMAN OF THE WORLD : RUINED BY READING: A Life in Books, By Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Beacon Press: $18; 119 pp.)

May 26, 1996|Frederick Busch | Frederick Busch's most recent book is "The Children in the Woods: New and Selected Stories." He is Fairchild professor of literature at Colgate University

Here's the story, by a fine novelist, of her happy addiction to books. She's as mad for them as Eudora Welty describes herself in "One Writer's Beginnings," unable to "remember a time when I was not in love with them--with the books themselves, cover and binding and the paper they were printed on, with their smell and their weight and with their possession in my arms, captured and carried off to myself."

Lynne Sharon Schwartz will make you want to swap stories with her in the silent conversation readers conduct with writers who matter to them. When she tells you about the books in her childhood home in Brooklyn, "a kingdom by the sea," and wonders at the number of sea stories in a house devoid of sailors, you might declaim on C.S. Forester and explain to her that the endless ocean frees you from the life in which you're marooned. As she laments the strange disappearance of her beloved Harvard Classics volume containing Grimms' fairy tales, you can respond with a story about the Book-of-the-Month Club's maroon-bound edition of 1945 with its endpaper illustrations by Fritz Kredel whose slain dragon, red tongue hanging down, so fascinated you. And when she writes of "the long slow being with the book, feeling the shape of the words, their roll and tumble in the ear," you will smile knowingly in the pleasure of the reader--alone on purpose, in pursuit of a writer's words, but united with the rest of us by knowing (Schwartz says it for us) that "the real book is the prince hidden inside the frog. We open it, and our eyes give the kiss of regeneration. This power is what intoxicates."

"Ruined by Reading" is an essay of 119 pages by a gifted, ferociously intelligent novelist whose humor in her fiction ("The Fatigue Artist," "Disturbances in the Field") has usually taken the form of irony; she sees simultaneities or disjunctions and she ironically demonstrates them. In her essay, which is a love letter to books she read and reads and to the act of reading itself, Schwartz obeys the law of gravity but also manages to float free of the Earth at times, and almost to fly. For while she speaks here of intellectual obligations and serious encounters, she also writes about fun--about what has set her free.

She describes readers as "thrill-seekers," then hastens to assure us that "I don't read thrillers, not the kind sold under that label, anyway. They don't thrill; only language thrills." I suppose she refers to a writer like Robert Ludlum, clumsy and shallow. She doesn't nod forgivingly to Graham Greene's entertainments or the compelling work of the late Elleston Trevor writing as Adam Hall--but there I go, trying to swap stories about stories with her. That is the power of her book.

Readers give each other books as one gives love or intimate information: "Here, read this, it is in my mind, it affected the way I breathed." The story of the young Schwartz giving her parents Kafka's "The Trial" and then solemnly evaluating their response, virtually teaching them, is quite wonderful. Equally provocative are her renunciations of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, concluding with icy charity that "I hope exaggerated romanticism still thrives elsewhere."

She meditates on her childhood enchantment by "A Little Princess" and shows her early grit in taking her mother's suggestion and reading "A Tale of Two Cities" all the way to the end. We can see the formation of the writer and adult reader in her recollections of encountering poems by Tennyson and Poe. She was an early reader--called upon at 3 or so to show off for her parents' friends by reading from the New York Times aloud--and she makes it clear that reading changed her life, starting "innocently enough, and then it infiltrated. It didn't replace living; it infused it, till the two became inextricable, like molecules of hydrogen and oxygen in a bead of water."

But she has never forgotten that she began to read aloud as the performer of a parlor trick. And there is more, I suspect, that has gone into the selection of the following words--feelings of servitude on which Schwartz chooses not to elaborate:

"So much of a child's life is lived for others. We learn what they want us to learn and show our learning for their gratification. All the reading I did as a child, behind closed doors, sitting on the bed while the darkness fell around me, was an act of reclamation. This and only this I did for myself. This was the way to make my life my own."

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