Reading Through the Night
by Jane Tompkins
University of Virginia Press
Jane Tompkins was a respected professor of literature and award-winning author until she developed a debilitating chronic illness that sapped her energy, leaving her unable to travel, work, or even– on her bad days– write. With little choice but to stay in bed, Tompkins turned to books for comfort. But rather than providing an escape from the changes her illness imposed on her life, Tompkins discovered that a closer examination of what she read could provide profound insights into her own life as it was, and how much it had changed.
Tompkins’s path to self-discovery began with Sir Vidia’s Shadow, Paul Theroux’s memoir about his friendship with Nobel-prize winning author V.S. Naipaul. Though Tompkins is discomfited by Naipaul’s casual disregard for the people around him, she is nevertheless fascinated by the authors’ friendship, how it builds, and ultimately collapses around them. Tompkins couldn’t put the book down and often returned to it before venturing into the authors’ other works. In them, she found disheartening stories about unhappy people, but from these stories and her examination of her responses to them, Tompkins began to realize things about herself– the truth about her own envious feelings, how she learned to ride a motorcycle in part because she was anxious about her upcoming (and ultimately doomed) marriage, or the many ways her current husband expressed his love with her realizing it.
Though she often brings up anecdotes about reading books by other authors such as Robert Pirsig or Anthony Trollope, Tompkins’s main focus is on Naipaul and Theroux and she makes a deep dive into their selected works. The experience is often uncomfortable, but she sticks with it, as the reader must also do if they are unfamiliar with Naipaul or Theroux. Sticking with the discomfort, Tompkins insists, is a way to discover new things about yourself and, ultimately, to heal.
“If someone asked me why I write, that would be my answer, too, the desire to be known. This is a spiritual need, a longing as deep as any that we have. To be known is to have one’s existence validated, to be affirmed in our very being, simply by being seen.”
Most reading memoirs tend to be lighter affairs, providing amusing anecdotes about an author’s adventures in reading and the unexpected happenings of a bookish life. Few of them provide the deeper investigation of the self that Tompkins undertakes. By staying with her discomfort- whether it was a disturbing scene in a book or a realization regarding her own faults- she shows patient readers that discomfort is not a terrible thing and that it can help us more than we think it can, but only if we allow ourselves to really process what we’re taking in.
In an age when “I felt a little uncomfortable” is reason enough to stop reading a book, stop watching a movie, or drop out of a college class, we rarely hear someone encouraging us to sit with that discomfort and examine its roots. This is a shame, because if Tompkins’s own insights are anything to go by, a deeper examination of ourselves may help us to become better people.
“If you stick with the process, the ghost will rise from the test and deliver its message. And should you discover something you’d rather not know, all the better. Such knowledge is precious and leads to healing. It took me two years to find out whay I was so enthralled by Sir Vidia’s Shadow, and I’m glad I did: two years is not long. Books that captivate without stirring up any unwanted thoughts or emotions are wonderful; books that shine a light into dark places are like gold.
If a book is a conversation taking place across distance and time, it is worth remembering what a real conversation is. It is not two people talking at each other, just waiting for each other to pause long enough to toss their own opinions into the air. A good conversation occurs when both parties are actively listening to each other and building upon what is being said. In Reading Through the Night, Tompkins shows us that books are the best kinds of conversations and that the person we learn the most about just might be ourselves.
This ebook was available as a free Read Now title from NetGalley. This did not influence my opinion of the book.