We are culturally burdened by the notion of the reading life as a happy life, one of steady progress, discovery, pleasure; a garden of intellectual and emotional maturity in which we harvest the fruit of our pursuits in literature, poetry, and music, with books a central feature. We are always learning something, understanding something new—or better yet, clearing up our misunderstanding of something essential so that we see the questions, both moral and social, in a new light that brings us into a closer bond with our fellows. Ties eventually bind us to other people as we enter the society of the book. This begins in childhood for those of us fortunate enough to be near, around, or influenced by books. What would a childhood be like without books? Perhaps it would be like childhoods almost everywhere, save for the progressive democracies of the West; that is, truncated, bruising, poverty-riddled and unhealthy. In our own country now, the likelihood is great that a child will grow up without books, or with a limited appreciation of books, or with almost no understanding and appreciation of literature, poetry or art at all.

Arthur Conan Doyle, an old-age-spiritualist who searched the ethers for the soul of his dead son, personifies the Edwardian view: “I care not how humble your bookshelf may be, nor how lonely the room that it adorns. Close the door of that room behind you, shut off with it all the cares of the outer world, plunge back into the soothing company of the great dead, and then you are through the magic portal into that fair land whither worry and vexation can follow you no more. You have left all that is vulgar and all that is sordid behind you. There stand your noble, silent comrades, waiting in their ranks. Pass your eye down their files. Choose your man. And then you have but to hold up your hand to him and away you go together into dreamland.” Doyle titled the essay in which this opinion appears, “Through the Magic Door”. It was written in 1908.

Twenty-six years earlier Robert Louis Stevenson in “A Gossip on Romance” shared with his readers an opinion the equal to Doyle’s in enthusiasm, if less martial in spirit. “In anything fit to be called by the name of reading, the process itself should be absorbing and voluptuous; we should gloat over a book, be rapt clean out of ourselves, and rise from the perusal, our mind filled with the busiest, kaleidoscopic dance of images, incapable of sleep or of continuous thought.”

Maybe some books are comrades who usher us through a magic portal where all that is vulgar and sordid is left behind, and existence becomes a dream of peaceful repose. Perhaps some books produce a raptness that is absorbing and voluptuous, so much so that sleep becomes impossible. Surely, though, the ideas, impressions, memories and fervors expressed by Doyle and Stevenson are culturally and historically demarcated. They belong to a certain social class at a determined historical time, not to us. Or, perhaps, Stevenson and Doyle were unduly influenced by their childhood experiences, sheltered as they were in their playrooms and libraries at home in Scotland and England.

Surely we must regard this view sweetly laughable, something of a relic. It sounds like the nineteenth century must have felt to Doyle and Stevenson, a great adventure of Empire, social privilege and comfort. It is probative that Stevenson wrote “A Child’s Garden of Verse”, enjoyed by children and adults both, that brought pleasure and repose to generations of readers. Soon enough though, the great era of the nineteenth century novel gave way to another kind of reading life, a life more difficult in light of wars, famines and turmoil.

A novel that has profoundly influenced me (in the sense that I can’t get it out of my mind and I re-read it every five or six years) is called “Wrinkles” by Charles Simmons, a now nearly forgotten writer who was at the height of his powers in 1976. When I read “Wrinkles” my life was spiraling out of control, or at least it seemed so to me. I came to “Wrinkles” by accident I imagine (I can’t recall how the book crossed my path…it seems to have just appeared, though in the 1970s I read fiction with a pure and all-consuming devotion), and found its simple, straightforward declarative style mesmerizing. Simmons writes short chapters about the life of a man, that’s all, from birth to old age. It’s just a man’s life—his childhood and parents, his difficult but not untypical relationship with a brother, adultery carried on in hotel rooms, a failed marriage, divorce, further affairs, a career as a novelist, cocktail parties and travel; and then, advancing age, and all the thoughts and cares that come with it.

“As he grows older without serious illness he occasionally will be grateful that he escaped early destruction and midway disillusion. Near the end of his life he will be able to do whatever he wants with his time, civilization and nature having lost interest in him.”

And, for the last paragraph of the novel, the worst of it, a sentence so cold I felt it in my blood—“As he gets older he will sometimes try to inquire into his deepest wishes, hoping to find a weariness with life that would make death less fearsome, but can’t.”

One’s blood runs cold, indeed.