How reading changed my life

by Anna Quindlen

Published: Aug 25, 1998 by Ballantine Books
ISBN: 9780345422781
Format: Paperback / softback | Trade paperback (US)


For a such a slim volume, this book left me with many, many thoughts. I think it would make an excellent book club read because the issues it raises are many and conversations could go on for hours. TL;DR version: it’s good and worth the read.

My personal feelings about this book jumped around like a yo-yo: at the beginning I was saying to myself “she’s describing my childhood!” and in the next breath I was saying “Oh stop making sweeping generalisations about things you don’t know!” and then back again to “yes, that’s precisely the point!”.

This slim volume consists of 70 pages of Quindlen’s musings concerning reading and the importance of it to her life thus far (and so many of us).

She makes some generalisations about gender that I didn’t agree with (why women read what they read vs. why men read what they read). My feelings (and I recognise they are just my own) are that she’s trying to give meaning to something that doesn’t need to have it. Knowing what MT gets out of reading Bosch and what I get out of reading Kate Daniels isn’t going to give any great insights into my marriage. The important insight is that we share an enjoyment of reading.

Quindlen also touches upon the great upheaval concerning The Canon and the collective wig-out pretentious idiots around the world are having at the inclusion of female and culturally diverse authors. I found this part pretty amusing, because both camps are right and wrong but ultimately doing exactly what they should to move things forward. Do women and culturally diverse authors need to be part of The Canon? Yes. Are there people who want titles accepted as part of The Canon not for merit but because they are diverse, or financially successful? Yes. But this acrimonious tug-of-war is exactly what literature ultimately needs because the titles that survive the brouhaha are the ones that will actually deserve to be called great works of literature, regardless of color or gender. So while I think the fight is ultimately silly, I think it’s ultimately vital too.

I was also amused by her attempt to argue the merits of reading for pleasure and entertainment; I agree with her – I wholeheartedly do, but her attempt to relate to everyman fails spectacularly. She uses her own guilty pleasure read as an example, to say that it’s ok to read ‘low brow’ books. Her guilty pleasure? The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy, who by-the-by, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1932. Now, if I was someone who suffered self-consciousness about what others thought of my reading choices, I don’t think her Nobel prize winning guilty pleasure is going to make me feel vindicated or proud about my love for Deborah Harkness.

What I do think she nailed perfectly is the subjective mire of book banning and the importance of educational reading lists that focus more on instilling a love of literature and less on Important Books that contain Important Thoughts. She deftly handles the digital vs. print debate (spoiler: both will win) and she definitely, perfectly, describes the sheer joy of reading: for knowledge, for entertainment, for understanding, and for the places it can take you without ever leaving your chair. A worthy and thoughtful read.

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