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VALLEY WEEKEND | WORDS & IMAGES

Little Book Is Soothing to an Anxious Psyche

A friend offers 'Ruined by Reading' as a way to give counsel indirectly but effectively.

July 11, 1996|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A present was waiting for me recently, after a much-needed weekend away.

The wise friend who sent it is no slave to her Day Runner. She gives gifts as needed, not as dictated by circles on her calendar, although she is better than the rest of us and never forgets a birthday.

Never out of contact for more than a day or two, Maureen knew I had been through a protracted bad patch--six months or more of too much stress, too little joy.

Long distance, she could hear the accumulated poison in my voice. Concerned, she sent me an antidote. A woman who has known more than her share of grief, Maureen has a simple and sustaining faith. She believes there are sources of health in everyday life. The surest of these are friends and books.

The gift from my friend of forever was Lynne Sharon Schwartz's "Ruined by Reading" (Beacon Press, 1996). As somebody's mother, Maureen learned decades ago that the most palatable and effective way to give counsel is indirectly.

At one level, "Ruined by Reading" is the novelist's charming meditation on how learning to read (at age 3) changed her life forever. At another, it is a prescription for the anxious literate: "Read this and call me in the morning."

In her 119-page essay, Schwartz traces her random walk through the books of her middle-class, Jewish-American childhood--classics such as the magical "A Little Princess," yes, but savory oddities as well, such as "Miracle at Carville," a memoir by a woman in a leper colony. Schwartz loves books the way she loves food; reading while eating multiplies her pleasure. Indeed she writes about her mother's meat grinder as lovingly as she does about "Little Women."

But it is on the uses of literature that Schwartz is most eloquent. Acquiring information is incidental to the kind of reading she continues to revel in. Schwartz understands that a book is a tool, even a weapon. No one is more powerless than a child, and yet a child who reads, as she did, as we did, pursues her own destiny, if only where it counts most, in her own head.

Sprawled on her comforter, a young reader--even a young reader with a Barbie doll collection--is a sister to Spartacus, declaring her freedom from the conformist bondage her parents and her less imaginative teachers would impose upon her.

If they see her resistance as petulance, as Schwartz's did, so be it. Books have already set her free.

Maureen isn't the kind of person who would insult a friend with a self-help book. Instead she throws a rope into the abyss. "Grab it," she has the good sense not to say. "Remember who you are--a person who knows the power and voluptuous pleasure of a book."

Schwartz contends that books offer no cut-rate salvation. "If no girl was ever ruined by a book," she writes, "none was ever saved by one either." Books--real ones, anyway, not the ones written by multimillionaire flimflam artists--can't tell you what to do, but they can provide "a context for experience, a myriad of contexts."

If books offer no cure, they can keep you from being blindsided by all the dreadful things--leprosy and children who grow up, for instance--that happen in a life and have been written about before.

As Schwartz explains, "When we are old and have everything stripped away, and grasp the vanity of having had it and of grieving for its loss, yet remain both bound in vanity and grief, hugging the whole rotten package to our hearts in an antic, fierce embrace, we may think, King Lear: This has happened before, I am not in uncharted territory, now is my turn in the great procession."

My great good friend gave me a wonderful little book.

I can't tell you how much better it made me feel.

*

Maureen isn't the kind of person who would insult a friend with a self-help book. Instead she throws a rope into the abyss. 'Grab it,' she has the good sense not to say. 'Remember who you are--a person who knows the power and voluptuous pleasure of a book.'

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