Elizabeth George


Reading's pleasure is solitary, but it is also infinite. There is very little in life that gives us so much and asks so little...

It seems to me that I have always been in the midst of reading a book. I can’t remember a time when it was otherwise, although there is a distinct possibility that I wasn’t doing any reading in the crib. But from my earliest memories of being a child, I was surrounded by books, and books and libraries loom large in my personal legend. I became a writer largely because I loved reading. Reading, I found myself swept up in other worlds and in the lives of people whose largeness of experience lived within me long after the covers of the book were closed. Reading, I developed a desire to do the same thing that was going on on the page. But by this I mean that what I wanted to do was write. For what was on the page constituted words, and it was the words themselves that created in my mind the images of Anne Shirley, of Laura Ingalls, of Nancy Drew, of the Boxcar Children, and on and on.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, there were few distractions to lure a child away from books, but I didn’t cling to books because they were the only relief I had from boredom. Indeed, in the neighborhood in which I lived, there were children aplenty so there was very little boredom. We played like demons, returning home only when the “five o’clock whistle” blew at the packing plant in Mountain View, California, down by the railroad tracks but with enough velocity that it could be heard all over town. Our play was filled with games of imagination that always began with one of the children offering the magic words, “Let’s say…” and completing the sentence with something like “we live on the prairie and over there under the plum tree will be our sod house” or “I’m the mother and you’re the father” or “I’m the teacher and you’re the bad kids.” We also played hide-and-seek and kick-the-can and mother-may-I and tag. But when darkness fell or when rain visited the Santa Clara valley, we had books. Or perhaps I should say more specifically, I had books.

I cannot imagine a life in which there are no books. Nor can I imagine a life in which books are merely a second, third, fourth, or fifth choice of entertainment. When I finish one book, I pick up another and to me there never exists the anxiety of "What will I do next?" or "What will I do alone?" or "What will I do while I wait?" I have a stack of to-be-read books that will give me pleasure for at least a decade, and whenever I enter our local bookstore, I buy another and add it to the stack.

obrien_inthelakeofthewoodsI have my favorites, of course. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird at least ten times, and Possession by A.S. Byatt will probably always reign as my choice of best novel ever written although In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien takes a close second to that. I have discovered writers whose work has taken my breath away—who can do otherwise but celebrate the discovery of Tana French, for example?—and I have lived in the descriptive elegance of people who have been writing for years.

As a novelist myself now, I am thrilled when someone tells me they walked down the King’s Road in London to look at the exact house at the corner of Cheyne Row and Lordship Place where my character Simon St. James lives, and I am delighted when I learn that someone else went to a location in one of my novels because I made it so real that they “just had to see it.” For these are things that I myself have done as a reader, eager to experience in part what a writer whom I will never meet has so lovingly crafted on the page.

I celebrate reading, probably more than anything. Its pleasure is solitary, but it is also infinite. There is very little in life that gives us so much and asks so little of us: just to find a chair, to open the pages, and to fall into the embrace of story.

This "Writers on Reading" essay was originally published in "At the Scene" eNews January 2013 as a first-look exclusive to our enewsletter subscribers. For more special content available first to our enewsletter subscribers, sign up here.