So far a kind of psycho-metaphysical thread has weaved its way through the reading life as interpreted by writers like Sven Birkerts, Wendy Lesser and Jill McCorkle. Birkerts mentions the word soul a number of times in essays, arguing that slow, careful reading of challenging works of imaginative literature involves the changing of our inner state to the extent that we develop or alter our souls. I take this to mean that Birkerts believes he has undergone in his reading life a slow process of maturation, or has experienced himself, some alteration in his nature as a direct result of the reading life, either over time or through some sudden illumination. It’s a good question: Do those in the reading life become more soulful or undergo some kind of sudden or long-term transformation, and if so, what could that mean? Lesser, on the other hand, argues only that the reading life is an adventure of discovery, like sailing out to the edge of the world and bumping into an unknown continent. Really, the difference between these two descriptions of the reading life don’t differ all that much. You read a book, you discover something, and it changes your inner state for the long term. Needless to say, neurologists might question the scientific accuracy of this statement, given as they are to measuring inner states strictly in terms of measurable quantities like heart rate, blood pressure and many other things, all and each of them strictly material in nature. What is soul, after all? And who but a romantic artist or writer would mention such a thing in a serious essay? McCorkle, writing about Mikal Gilmore’s journey through and around a murderous brother’s evil deeds, begins her essay with an idealization of Keat’s Beauty and Truth, a profoundly metaphysical construct if there ever was one. It’s the beauty of the writing, she says. It’s the truth of Gilmore’s “coming to grips” with his genetic and personal history. In essence, she’s telling us (without elaborating on the hint that she relates to Gilmore on another level, perhaps more personal) that she’s inspired by his triumph over tragedy—something so beautiful, complex and traumatic that it attains the level of metaphysical “thingness”, so much so that “we marvel at its existence, just as we do occurrences in nature.” She sees and admires an eagle soaring over the Yukon River in spring and that eagle is Gilmore’s triumph, or some such.

Joyce Carol Oates is an accomplished novelist, poet and essayist. Her book, “The Faith of a Writer”, demonstrates a deeply appreciative understanding of both the reading life and how the reading life shapes a writer’s voice and sensibility. In a charming essay from the book called ‘First Loves from Jabberwocky to After Apple Picking’, Oates describes her childhood in rural, upstate New York, where she was educated in an eight-grade one-room schoolhouse, a brawling emporium of learning and mayhem. She was bullied, but wasn’t singled out. Everybody was bullied in turn. Once, though, she encountered the Oz stories, something about Lewis Carroll’s power and strategies enthralled her perhaps as only beauty in nature enthralls. Reflecting on these early years of her reading—going from Lewis Carroll to, eventually, Robert Frost’s poetry, she writes, “There are two primary influences on a writer’s life: those influences that come so early in childhood, they seem to soak into the marrow of our bones and to condition our interpretation of the universe thereafter; and those that come a little later when we are old enough to exercise some control of our environment and our response to it, and have begun to be aware not only of the emotional power but the strategies of art.” A close reading of the essay reveals the power of her early environment as well; rocky, isolated, snow-bound upstate New York with its depopulated, poor towns and countryside, its ruined farms, its neglected orchards and long winters—winters during which a young girl in a loving family had time and space to read about Alice Through the Looking Glass and dream.

The power of one’s childhood! Few memories are so potent as those we retain from our early years, when most memories have disappeared long since. My mother, during one of our many moves from place to place insisting that we leave my beloved German Shepherd behind; a young boy on his knees in the back seat of the old Chevy watching that dog with his paws against the fence, barking, begging me not to leave him alone, with some stranger. Later, as an adolescent, I encountered my first “real” book, a tattered paperback copy of “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, by Walter M. Miller. I’ll never forget that book, its dense prose a challenge, but its opening theme so resonant with something inside me. Long ago the was world was destroyed by foolish humans… something about starting over amid the ruins, creating a spiritual brotherhood, a search for meaning… something haunted, lonely and difficult. As an only child in a fractured three-person family, I was on my own, and “A Canticle for Leibowitz” became a trusted ally in what turned out to be a long battle.