Reading in the Time of Ebola

I used to be a good reader.

 

No, not like that.

 

I used to be an enthusiastic reader who read books mostly as authors intended them to be read.* I fell in love with the characters they wanted me to love and hated the ones they wanted me to hate. I made mistakes, of course. Like for example, when I finished Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, I saw a happy couple finally united after many trials and tribulations instead of a blinded subdued male paired with a victorious female. And when I read Jane Austen's novels, I completely overlooked Austen's scathing critique of the way British society forced its women into marriages. I thought they were love stories.

 

Books seemed so shiny to me then.

 

So of course, I went on to get a Ph.D. in Books. Comparative Literature, that's what they called it. I learned how to be a good reader, or at least as good as one can be.** If, for instance, the text said its protagonist tortured women, children, and animals, then no matter how romantic he seemed in his relationship with one woman, his love interest, he was still a sadist, and his dark moody charms should repulse rather than attract. Yes, I am talking about Wuthering Heights.

 

Reading like this was fun.

 

Somewhat.

 

And only for a short while.

 

Because quite soon they taught me to see authors' biases and prejudices in books. Which I had been blind to until then. Yes, I know I sound naive, and I WAS naive. In fact, more naive than I should have been because as someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, I knew not to believe a word written in, let's say, newspapers and magazines. But I thought it was only non-fiction that lied. I mean who lies in fiction?

 

Many people as it turned out.

 

For instance, Tolstoy. Who said that some women are as shallow as cats and so it's okay to hurt them (War and Peace). Dickens. Who said that only virginal girls and married women who never slept with anyone but their husbands deserved to live (Dickens's entire oeuvre). And even Charlotte Bronte. Who showed no pity to the poor mad locked-up Mrs. Rochester because that woman happened to be a person of color.

 

Now whenever I'm reading, I feel like Mad-Eye Moody: constant vigilance and trust no one. Anybody can suddenly turn into a death eater. That good-guy protag can abruptly say something racist. That novel can suddenly make its overweight sexually adventurous female character into a villain. That moody, handsome fairy king can out of the blue begin to sex-traffic human underage girls, and the author is clearly okay with that. My blood boils, and yes, reading is hard these days.

 

And when I started writing, it was, of course, about a girl who believed all the stuff written in books. Some books told her that females were more prone to insanity, and so she thought herself mad. Others said females were evil, and she believed that too. It was a hard book to write. I so much wanted for the girl to be all right, but at the same time, as a writer, I had to give her a hard time. And so I gave her a sexist boyfriend, wishy-washy friends, and the deadliest environment I could think of: a bookstore. The girl had to grow up, relying on books only for her information about the outside world. And now my book, Into the Blind, is out there. I wish it well. I hope it'll prove me to be at least a good writer, if not a good reader.

 

*Authorial intent is of course a much fuzzier thing than that, but if we go into detail, we'd never get out of it alive.

 

**Our understanding of texts is of course influenced by who we are: our gender, race, state of health, lived experience, and anything and everything about us.