One Common Reader
Lee was a gaunt Yankee apple farmer with a ready laugh and an easy manner. In the late 1920s, he fell in love with Tina, a slim and pretty English major. She always had her head in a book, but Lee didn’t mind. He liked Tina’s sharp wit and they loved to laugh in private at the follies of others. She made him feel smart, and, frankly, it was a relief to retire to her company at the end of the day. Lee’s family was less sanguine. Tina spent so much time reading and knew so little of farm life that she thought a boiled egg and asparagus was a suitable farmer’s dinner. What, they wondered, did sweet, funny Lee see in this bookish college girl?
A few years later, just a few weeks after the birth of their second child, Lee died. It was spring. There had been a flood. Lee went to help a neighbor and caught a chill. Now, Tina’s eccentricities rose to the level of crimes. Blinded by grief, Lee’s family blamed Tina, the English major who cooked meager dinners, for their beloved son’s death. Tina sat in bed, nursing her newborn daughter, shooing her toddler son away. She never cried. Lee’s family refused Tina any help. As soon as she was able, she put the children into foster care so she could enroll in secretarial school. It was 1936.
Tina kept reading. She read through the long years of her children’s growing up; she read when her son would race to the end of the driveway to greet each passing truck, hoping daddy was coming back. She read after work as a secretary in a private school in Worcester. She read when she sent her son off to boarding school, and she read while her daughter made her way through the public high school. When her son was in the Army and her daughter in college, she judged it acceptable to remarry. Whit was not as charming as Lee, nor as smart, but he was rich. Besides, she had married for love once and it hadn’t turned out well. She kept reading. It didn’t make her kinder or warmer. She never forgave the gods for taking her first husband from her. She raised her children, never shed a tear, and kept reading.
In the 1960s, Tina discovered Virginia Woolf and she read everything. Every new paperback from Harcourt found its way to her shelves. When she came across a review or notice, she would tuck it inside the cover. As the letters and diaries began to appear, her sister and brothers would give her the latest volume—sometimes even in hardback—for Christmas. One year, her baby brother Al, who wrote light verse in the style of Ogden Nash, and who had loved Lee, too, gave her a Virginia Woolf Engagement Calendar. When the year ended, she cut out her favorite quotations and photographs and pasted them into a loose-leaf notebook full of black paper.
As she read, what did Tina think of the story of the Paston son who, in love with reading, neglected his father’s tomb in Woolf’s essay “The Pastons and Chaucer”? What did she make of Margaret Paston’s worry and fret that her late husband’s orders for candles, prayers, and tombstones had not been fulfilled by a son who “sometimes, instead of riding off on his horse to inspect his crops or bargain with his tenants…would sit, in broad daylight, reading.” Did she feel, as Lee’s parents surely would have wanted her to feel, a stab of guilt, a recognition of how much worse she had been than this negligent son? After all, if she had been cooking roasts instead of reading, Lee might have been more robust, and the cold he caught in that April flood might not have turned into pneumonia. Or did she feel a jolt of recognition? A joyful leap of the heart to think of a man in fifteenth century Norfolk who read with the intensity that she did? Did she recognize in John Paston the isolation of a reader surrounded by those who do not read?
As they grew older, Tina and Whit spent more and more time in Florida. She kept reading, but it grew harder. Glaucoma set in, and, by 1991, Tina was blind. She packed up her books, more than a dozen boxes of cracked, weathered, unglued paperbacks, ruined from the annual trips between the attic in Maine and a garage in Florida. Some she sent to her son, some to her daughter, but most she sent to her son’s older daughter, a girl who had the chance to do what Tina never could: go on to graduate school in English literature. Tina was a common reader. Her life was far more obscure than the lives Woolf chronicles in the “Lives of the Obscure” and her brand of reading more austere than the happy opinions of those “common readers” with whom Samuel Johnson rejoices to concur in the epigraph to The Common Reader.
Tina was also my grandmother. Those boxes of books came to my studio apartment, and, when they arrived, Nana had already caused enough pain to make me ambivalent about the gift. My father shrugged his shoulders. I was to keep those of his mother’s books that were useful and toss the rest. My mother, always polite, urged me to write a fulsome letter of thanks, reminding me that, however cracked and yellowed, the books were Nana’s treasure and my inheritance.
The books came with memories of our conversations about reading and writing, and most of those conversations were hard. The worst was when I was nine, visiting Nana in Florida. I showed her a story I had written about a mermaid. She got out her Bobbs Merrill Complete Poems and Selected Prose of John Milton and turned to the juvenilia. One glance at a little verse in Latin, subsequently translated into Greek, and I was devastated. I knew then that I could never be a writer. But her comparing my little, unoriginal fairy tale to Milton’s juvenilia was just the most absurd moment in a relationship marked by my being pressed to read more, to read harder books and to read them more carefully, to fix my every error of grammar and fact, to discuss what I had read with greater accuracy and insight. Unpleasant as this was, it was also our connection. In our exhausting, battering meetings, I recognized a fellow reader. The impossibility of conveying how distressing these interviews were comes, I suspect, from the far greater oddity: I am a third-generation reader. Whatever isolation she may have felt as a reader in that Nashua farmhouse and, later, in the house in Worcester, alone with her children, has not been mine.
I gave away many, many of Nana’s books. They burdened me. There is only one, however, that I wish I still had: the Milton. For when I flipped through the pages, it was full of her marginalia, including “Why doesn’t my son make my granddaughter learn Latin?” When I discovered this note, I slammed the book shut. The sting from Nana’s rebuke was electric. I was angry all over again for her reminding me how far from success I was. I grew desperate to get the book out of my apartment. But then, as in A Room of One’s Own, when Woolf’s narrator suddenly realizes that her anger comes from the anger within Professor Von X’s text, I have come to realize that my desperation reflects my grandmother’s desperation. There is desperation in that little note, desperation so naked that I could not live in the same apartment with it.
Her frantic sense that the hour for me to learn Latin was growing late reveals how, for this one common reader, serious reading was the best possible hope of some solace on this earth. Her little note pulls me into a whirlpool of masochism. A woman, a widow, a college graduate, and a lover of Virginia Woolf, born in the United States in the early years of the 20th century, would surely grasp all that Woolf identified as destructively patriarchal in Milton. But rather than reject or ignore Milton, she returned to him. Rather than question the great tradition, she worshipped it. Perhaps she saw, as Woolf did, the persistent beauty that exceeds the limitations. In fact, she sought to educate her children and her most bookish grandchild into that priesthood. For Nana, great books were sacred. I remember her reverent gaze upward at the shelf of Dickens in my father’s library. He didn’t remember the person who had given them the set, but she recalled the giver and the day with fondness, a treasured memory. She brought it out for us, as, in Jacob’s Room Reverend Floyd returns to the thought of Jacob, “I gave him Byron’s works.”
I know other readers happier in their private libraries and dens. Warm, funny people who mark their days by trying to steal some time to read, who pass books on, and who talk about plots with greater interest and intensity than they do the lives of their friends. Thoughtful people who devote their weekend afternoons to indulging their curiosity about the history of Spain or the life of Napoleon. Occasionally, at a party, someone will confess—and the tone is always confessional—that he is working his way through Proust or Woolf or Musil. I know other readers, too, who, in trying to make themselves into writers, read contemporary literature with startling avidity, alert to every misstep but always hoping, for innovation, for beauty, for art. This is all to say that one could make a taxonomy of common readers, but the rare species of which my grandmother was a type continues to haunt me.
A Yankee through and through, Nana was well acquainted with dissent. She was also a naturally conservative, introverted woman, born in New England in 1906. She lacked the temperament to be a carefree common reader, and she lacked the courage to turn herself into a confident judge. She might turn to a favorite book, as Mr. Ramsay does, to confirm her views, but she would never slam the book shut with the vigor of one who has won an argument. The boldest thing she could do was to declare a deep love for the writings of Virginia Woolf, a woman writer who, for all her conventionality, was far bolder than Nana herself. Nana was not bold, but she did not hesitate to be mean.
Whatever pleasures Nana derived from reading, reading made her no more pleasant to be around. Perhaps the best that can be said of her reading is what, in the novella The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett imagines as the Queen’s family’s reaction to Her Majesty’s sudden (imagined) obsession with reading: “She left the family more to themselves, chivvied them hardly at all, and they had an easier time all round. Hurray for books was their feeling, except when they were required to read them or when grandmamma insisted on talking about them.”
After Lee died, Tina froze too. She never stopped reading, and she must have derived some pleasure from it. But, faced with a son who did not die young and make his wife a widow, and a granddaughter who was not forced by economic necessity to secretarial school, reading was also useful as a kind of vengeance. Reading was her salvation and her weapon. She wielded books—the giving and the withholding of them—with the accuracy of a crack shot. When I was about thirteen, she gave me my father’s old copy of The Portable James Joyce for Christmas. To me, it was an extremely puzzling gift, at once cheap and intimidating. Unsure how to feel, I went looking for my mother whom I found staring in disbelief at yet another hideous frilly apron. “I didn’t know what to get you,” Nana had said, “because you don’t read.”
What my grandmother seems to have longed for, and what she seems not to have had, is the legacy that she gave her children: ease with the idea of being a reader among readers. Though the communities of readers she found here and there may have provided some transient company, she was a solitary woman who left behind a family of readers. Both her son and daughter are readers, married to readers. My sister reads when she can, as does her husband, and their sons are avid readers in turn. My husband reads, as do his mother and grandmother. And our two little girls happily remain in bed, sometimes for half an hour at a time (an eternity to two children under seven), reading to themselves, telling stories about the pictures.
Woolf was particularly gifted at ending her essays, at making the reader feel the satisfaction of a conclusion. Though she teased about perorations, she seldom ends an essay with a cheap trick. In trying to conclude this essay about my curmudgeonly ancestor, I am haunted by two of Woolf’s conclusions. At the ending of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf invokes the ending of Paradise Lost in which Milton describes Adam and Eve’s exile from Paradise, their solitude, despite being hand in hand. What a contrast she offers in the soaring, inspiring ending to “How Should One Read a Book?” There, the Almighty sees us coming toward Paradise, books in hand, and observes, “We have nothing to give them, they have loved reading.” That plural pronoun is as comforting as anything. I feel rich in the sense that my “we” includes family and friends, writers and readers; it also includes this austere and obscure common reader, so distant and yet so near. The one vision of life as exile continually corrects the other of readers walking together with their books: we are alone on this earth, but, as readers, we join the company of those who have tasted paradise.
Anne Fernald teaches modernist literature at Fordham University and is currently at work on the Cambridge University Press edition of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. She can be found blogging at Fernham.