In general, my memory is pretty terrible. I remember books; I remember their stories, their characters, whether I enjoyed the work or not. But I rarely remember details of the circumstances under which I read them: where I was sitting, what was around me, the physical, sensory scene in my real life.
But sometimes the universe conspires to give you the ultimate reading experience, putting a book in your hands at the exact time and place you will be able to experience it to the fullest. Sometimes the words on the page interact with real life in a way that sets a scene you will remember for a lifetime, bringing literature to life so vividly that the story is impressed into your reality, forever:
‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King: I was a young teenager when I went through my Stephen King phase. My family lived in a large house on a small island off the coast of Georgia. At the time there were only a few houses on the island, and our road was dirt, not asphalt. We were a twenty minute drive from the mainland (ie a hospital), if there was an emergency. We were isolated. My room was on the second floor, and I had a white day bed with brass knobs on the corner posts. My bed was pushed up against the window, so that when I propped my head against the pillows to read, my body lay inches from the glass, my face in the center of the single four-foot pane. On the other side of the glass, a few feet from the house, swayed a cabbage palm, its moppy head at eye level with my bed.
One night, I stayed up late eating King’s pages. My blinds were closed (Duh! Of course I closed them. I was reading ‘Salem’s Lot), and I came to a scene where a vampire hovered outside a window, tapping, seeking entry into the home. My heart pounded, my eyes darted to the glass a foot from my face, and then there came a quiet screeching on my window, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Screeeeeech. Screeeech. I threw the book down and jumped out of bed, my chest heaving, until I rememberd, “The palm fronds” (pant pant), “It’s just the palm fronds.” With each skritchy squeak on the window, my heart thumped dangerously. I envisioned the vampire floating there, only inches away, his fingernails sharpened to better scratch the glass, his smile twitching because he could smell the vigor of my fresh, pulsing blood. I have never been more terrified while reading. I think I may have hidden the book, or removed it from my room, but the screeching continued all night. Even now, twenty-something years later, when I go home and hear the sound of palm fronds on glass, I think of ‘Salem’s Lot.
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell: I was once traveling and got delayed in Atlanta for several hours – maybe six or eight? I had brought with me the 32-pound hardcover of Gone With the Wind, and with so much time on my hands, rather than sit in the loud and bustling Atlanta airport, I decided to take the Marta train downtown to Centennial Olympic park. I lugged Mitchell’s tome with me and found an outdoor table at a café where I could watch kids chase bursts of water shooting up from the ground in the Centennial park fountain. As I read with my huge book splayed flat on a black iron café table, the moist Georgia heat pressed down on me. Condensation from my icy Coke trickled down the cup and pooled, then dripped onto the sidewalk below. I didn’t understand Atlanta, this city that seemed to be both South and not-South, with its messy tangle of inelegant roads and its fast pace and its strange mixture of old and new that I rarely experienced in coastal or rural Georgia. For four hours I sat with my dripping cup and I turned pages. I read the city – it’s pre-Sherman heyday, its burning, its invasion by outsiders, the fierce pride and dignity of its natives, reconstruction’s disregard of the South’s ways, of gentility, and Atlanta’s in-your-face rise from the ashes – on the pages of Mitchell’s book as in real life I breathed its air, drank its Coke, and listened to the laughter of its children, finally, through a work of fiction, understanding the history of this proud city that rose and fell, and then rose to what it is today.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris: (There are, um, a few F-bombs in this piece. Consider yourself warned.) Though it wasn’t the first time I read Me Talk Pretty One Day, my most memorable reading took place in Minnesota where, in the Mom circles I ran in, I never heard a single swear word (much to my dismay). I sat in the bleachers at the ice skating rink where my daughter wobbled back and forth in her lessons, the paperback in my lap, and I read “The Rooster,” a story about David’s brother, Paul, who “politely ma’ams and sirs all strangers but refers to friends and family, his father included, as either ‘bitch’ or ‘motherfucker.” Paul’s response to his father’s various lectures was, “‘Fuck it,’ or on one of his more articulate days, ‘Fuck it, motherfucker. That shit don’t mean fuck to me.”
The story was absolutely inappropriate for the wholesome ice rink setting, which added to its hilarity, and I tried to stifle giggles while moms chased toddlers around me. Children ran laps on the metal benches to hear the tinny clank clank clank of their feet on aluminum just as I got to the line where Paul says, “Some motherfucker told me to get the fuck out of his motherfucking face, so I said, ‘Fuck off, fuckface,'” and I laughed the kind of laugh that when you try to keep it in, it builds until your face contorts, and your shoulders shake, and tears are streaming down your face and you can’t see because your vision is blurred and you have to close the book before some nice non-swearing mom asks you what you’re laughing at. (This is not the first time this unsuccessful laughter-containment has happened to me. See: Lost Balls). Once my eyes were dry again, and I felt I could go on (because this is possibly the most fun I have ever had reading a book), I finished the story, which ends with “an enormous Fuck-It Bucket – a plastic pail filled with jawbreakers and bite-size candy bars, [because] (‘When shit brings you down, just say ‘fuck it,’ and eat yourself some motherfucking candy.’)” and I was simultaneously pleased and horrified to have the laughing fit happen all over again when a small child fell and hurt his knee, and I felt bad for him, and I thought, that poor kid needs a Fuck-It Bucket.
What about you? Have you had an ultimate reading experience?
11 thoughts on “The ultimate reading experience: when your real life setting jibes with (or opposes) the one in your book”
East of Eden by Steinbeck. A student recommended it to me and after teaching Grapes of Wrath for five years and remembering Cannery Row, I wasn’t sure I wanted to give it a try. Bought it at my local used book store. Sat down and couldn’t stop. I was so enraptured by the language and description and the characters that as soon as I’d get home from school, I’d grab and snack and read. I’m pretty sure I caught seriously behind on essay grading, but it was so worth it.
I love when that happens. That is the epitome of the ultimate reading experience – when everything else gets shoved into the background so that you can read just one more chapter. Now I might need to read East of Eden again. I remember loving it.
I remember when you told us how scared you got when the palm fronds brushed against the window that Dad went out and trimmed the palm tree!
I didn’t know that! Thank you Dad 🙂
I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible when I was living in Africa. Although I was in an entirely different part of the continent, the descriptions of the people and the experience of a white missionary family mirrored what I saw in day to day life. The humidity, the grit in the air, the invading insects, superstitions, and the very steep learning curve for newcomers to Africa all were reflections of what I had seen and what I could expect. Thank you for the moment to sit back and recall that – I have a busy day ahead and I needed that brief, pleasant time for reflection!
Wow, what a powerful experience. Thank you so much for sharing that – now I will think of you in Africa next time I read it. Good luck today, Meredith.
When I come to the end of a great book, I always bring it outside and sit in my car to finish it. I started this with American Psycho, to block out my roommate and the temptation of computers and my cellphone and coffee makers, etc. but now I do it with everything. I love the isolation of the car, the dead silence, the womb-like tightness of the enclosed space.
The result of this, is that I ended up again in the car when I finished JG Ballard’s ‘Crash’– a book entirely about the car as an extension of the human body and the eroticism, and creative force, of car crashes. It was such a bizarre and wholly appropriate experience, as if I was communing with the car, the light traffic around me, and the book itself. Definitely one of my most memorable reading experiences.
“When I come to the end of a great book, I always bring it outside and sit in my car to finish it.” I love you for this. I can’t imagine how potent the experience of sitting in your car and reading ‘Crash’ must have been. Now you’ve got me wanting to try that.
I had the most philosophical interaction with a book when I read “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut in high school. I was trying to write stories at the time and was really despairing because I just couldn’t find my voice. When I experienced Vonnegut, starting with S-5 and then all the rest, I discovered the alternative to a conventional writing tone. He just blew my mind apart and I think all of my writing since then has been to put the pieces back together. That’s how I have found my voice. And I’m still finding it. Writing is about the journey more than the destination….
What a spectacular story! “He just blew my mind apart and I think all of my writing since then has been to put the pieces back together.” Wow, maybe I should read more Vonnegut. And yes, the journey is certainly the most eye-opening part, especially when it comes to self-discovery. Thanks so much for sharing your Vonnegut experience – I love that you had such a powerful interaction with a book.
Oddly – Welcome to my planet by Shannon Olson. Minnesota writer if you remember her. It took me an entire year to read the book because it reflected my life so perfectly. I actually had to hide the book between my mattress at times and could only bring it out when I felt I could read another chapter. Then one day when showering at masters swimming, I asked Shannon what she did for a living……
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