I read my first novel at the age of seven, after which the printed word became my obsession. In the ghetto where we lived, the public library was endowed by Andrew Carnegie; to get to the children's section, you walked one flight up an imposing marble staircase. As soon as school let out, I had to be the first one to race up those stairs and the first one to peruse the shelves. Although a strict disciplinarian presided over the room and not a sound or sight of gaiety was permitted, my joy at being there was so palpable that I became a favorite of the librarians.
Rheumatic fever sent me to bed for several months in a bedroom that had no heat; the windows remained permanently sealed with ice. Reading was my only solace, but my mother barely tolerated it. Not only did she object to my reading so quickly, but she insisted that I re-read books until I had virtually memorized them. During this period of frail health, my mother had to go to the library for me, and often she would come home with the very books I had sent her to return. Hardly a day passed without her reminder that no one would marry me because I read so much.
By the time I was 11, I had been through every book that the children's department had to offer. No one could borrow adult books until he or she was 13 years old, possibly a rule that had to do with boys' bar mitzvahs at that age. For months I begged my mother to write a note asking permission for me to use the adult collection. My teacher also had to testify to my maturity and sense of responsibility. What did they fear in those days? Corruption by George Eliot?
The moment my adult card was in my hand, my true reading began. I tackled works of Dickens, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters. God knows what I derived from Freud, but I plowed my way through his letters and The Interpretation of Dreams when I was 14.
Compulsive readers read everything: mystery stories, spy thrillers, poetry, history, biography, sociology. When I start a novel I read it straight through even if I have to stay up until 4:00 a.m. to finish it. I suffer from insomnia, and I'm a middle-of-the-night reader who will dip into Proust, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster. I hold special affection for Saul Bellow and Phillip Roth, whom I regard as my brothers. When I'm anxious, I read poetry or study art books, both of which calm me.
I should mention my indebtedness to John Dos Passos, whom I read at age 15. His trilogy USA stunned me because it revealed that women from restricted milieus like my own could break with their backgrounds. Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Childhood broke new ground for me as did her short story "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit." I could never read Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence without experiencing admiration or feel less than exalted by the deftness of Iris Murdoch, who employed traditional craft for less than traditional subjects.
I can't conclude without mentioning three of my favorite novels, each of which I have read more than a dozen times: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice for its delicious social observations; Anna Karenina, which combines tragedy with soaring spirituality; and The Great Gatsby, unparalleled in its lyricism and stylistic grandeur.
Too bad my mother died at 48 — she might have discovered that women who read do marry, do raise children, do find books a source of comfort in a less than comforting world.