Thursday, December 31, 2009

Joyce Maynard's "Why I Read"

As I'm still recovering from the holiday rush, let's dip into the "Why I Read" files for today's blog entry, shall we? "Why I Read" is an occasional feature of our email newsletter and a personal favorite of mine. We've been gradually posting them online for all to see. In short, we ask authors why they read.

Today's entry comes from Joyce Maynard, a local author whose works include her memoir of growing up in the 1960s (Looking Back), her early 1990s novel To Die For (later made into a movie) and many more. Her latest book, Labor Day, came out last summer. NPR said that "apart from being a successful thriller, this book is a fascinating portrait of what causes a family to founder, and how much it can cost to put it back on the right path." Here's her original essay:

Truth to tell, I didn’t start out as much of a reader. I watched TV as my own private rebellion against the world of English literature. Child of two English teachers who quoted Shakespeare and eighteenth century poetry at the dinner table, I favored “Father Knows Best” and “Gilligan’s Island.” Still, every night before I went to sleep, my father sat at my bedside, reciting poetry. Sometimes he had me memorize Wordsworth. Sometimes Yeats or Blake. And the rhythms stuck in my brain, even as the sitcom stories faded.

I thought about our old practice of memorizing poetry just the other day, when (having come, a little later than some, to the joy of reading great literature) I had reached that scene in Ian McEwan’s novel,
Saturday, in which the young daughter—with her whole family held hostage and a knife at her mother’s neck—recites the poem “Dover Beach” and so disarms the man responsible for the crime that he releases them all. It wasn’t brute force or the heroic arrival of a SWAT team that brought about the family’s release: it was Matthew Arnold’s words.

My father could have recited “Dover Beach.” My mother, too. If I had been a more willing student, I would know the poem better than I do. But the rhythms of poetry—the poetry that was as much a part of dinners in my family as the food set on the table—sustain me still. Poetry can save your life, was McEwan’s message. Not just poetry, either, but language, words, the sound of syllables, the music of sentences.

Link I will never be a physically powerful person, but with words, well chosen, I take on strength. I know this, as a writer, because I know, as a reader, what other writers’ words have done for me. They open up the universe. They lift me out of myself, revealing a larger world.

Words can save your life, is the lesson. I believe it. That’s why I read.

Thanks, Ms. Maynard. Want to read others? On the blog so far: Beth Lisick, Susan Choi, Peter Rock, Dave Eggers, Daniel Handler, and T.C. Boyle.

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