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RUINED BY READING by Lynne Sharon Schwartz


A Life in Books

by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

Pub Date: May 28th, 1996
ISBN: 0-8070-7082-3
Publisher: Beacon

 We generally think of potboilers as knocked-off, hack novels meant to bring in some cash and attention (``keep the pot boiling'') until the author can come up with another ``real'' book. How unfortunate, then, to have the word ``potboiler'' occur to one while reading Scwartz's memoir of her life as a reader. Schwartz (The Fatigue Artist, 1995, etc.) is known as a novelist whose strong, fiercely felt prose--whose good prose- -often fails to cohere in a fully realized novelistic framework. This memoir, alas, is no different. Reading is a great subject. Not nearly enough books or essays (outside academia, anyway) have been devoted to it, and certainly very few have achieved the literary immortality of, say, Walter Benjamin's essay ``Unpacking My Library.'' Because of this, there is a temptation here to be uncritical and lap up the not-insignificant charms of Ruined by Reading--as Schwartz (in a narrative ranging from childhood to success as an author) laps up Heidi, A Little Princess, Martin Pippin in the Daisy Field, etc. The problem is that very little of enduring satisfaction results. Schwartz's reminiscences are centered largely on her child and teenage self--and childhood can be a breeding ground for adult sentimentality and excess. The book will have resonances for many readers--but mainly short- lived ones. Why? Haste (or a sense of it, anyway). Self- indulgence. The good stuff is terrific--as when the college-age Schwartz recommends Kafka to her parents, then receives a phone call from her father reporting a distinct difference in their readings and demanding to know what The Trial was really about. ``My heart leaped,'' she writes. ``This was exactly what I wanted. We should theorize this way every waking hour.'' Best for an unsophisticated audience of book-lovers: The sophisticates may feel that they could have done it better.