Reading and Remembering
If a book really strikes a chord with me I feel like I need to give it to everyone who might appreciate the book in the same way. It's like a compulsion to organise something equivalent to a 'literary potlatch'. Turning the last page of a great read evokes a strong obligation to share it with someone else. This isn't good if your bank balance is on the red side, or if when you take your credit card out in Waterstone's it groans. Maybe the impulse to share favourite books is, in part, driven by the paradox of reading itself.
Reading is always about listening to that solitary voice in your head that speaks as your eye jumps from sentence to sentence across the page. But the private act of reading is also profoundly about breaking isolation. As Salman Rushdie once put it, a different kind of identity is produced "as reader and writer merge, through the medium of the text, to become a collective being that both writes as it reads and reads as it writes." For Rushdie, this is the greatest and most subversive gift offered by a book. Perhaps it is this quality in reading which is a kind of sociability that compels bibliophiles to say, "You have to read this book..."
Mitch Albom's wonderful and moving autobiographical book Tuesdays with Morrie (Little, Brown and Company, 1997) is the story of a great teacher - Morrie Schwartz - who also happened to be a sociologist. I came upon this book quite by chance.
It was the last book that my mother-in-law, Gill, read before she died after a long and gruelling illness. She read it in hospital just days before the end of her life. She loved it and wanted her children to read it and each member of her family to possess a copy. Subsequently, her daughter Debbie read it and passed it on.
Rushdie is right when he says there is something surreptitious about the act of reading, but books that have been read many times carry in them the traces of previous readings. This can take the form of the invisible thumbprints that cause wear and tear on the pages themselves, or 'intelligent graffiti' left in margin notes or in underlined passages. As I read Tuesdays with Morrie I wondered how its previous owners had written their own feelings of joy, hope, fear and regret as they read. The book contained no marginalia or scribbled notes. The imprint of other eyes was left by thumbs and finger marks and pages turned down at the corner.
There are two stories in the book. First, is Mitch's story. It is the tale of a student who encounters a charismatic and inspiring teacher. Mitch describes the first time he met Morrie in class. We have all experienced the tentative encounters between staff and students in Week 1, as each test the other out. Morrie sat in front of the class and read through the register. He came to the name Mitchell Albom and asked his new student whether he preferred to be called "Mitch" or "Mitchell". The freshman replied that his friends called him "Mitch".