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Title: Chew It Slowly
Cover Image: Ruined By Readingby Linda Tiessen Wiebe

THE BRIGHT YELLOW letters on a fire-engine red cover call out alarmingly: RUINED BY READING. How can reading ruin you? Reading too much? Reading for the wrong reasons? Ruined for life, or ruined by mundanity? I was expecting admonishment on my reading habits. Then I noticed the cover drawing: a young girl sitting on a swing that is also a parachute. She is steering it, and the sail of the parachute is an open book. My first clue.

Without a table of contents or an introduction, Lynne Sharon Schwarz weaves together stories to describe the effect of reading in her life, and by implication, ours. Although categorized as memoir, Ruined By Reading reads like “a novel whose narrative is drawn by the needle of reading.” Like the girl on the cover I felt myself sailing through a landscape, being guided gently but firmly. It was an adventure to discover that how we read impacts who we become.

Perhaps the title is a play on the subversive aspect of reading. Alberto Manguel, in A History of Reading, traces the relationship between reading and revolution. Bookworm children are often admonished to go outside and play, implying that being absorbed in a book is not engagement in real life. Adults absorbed in a good book are somehow seen as selfish or anti-social. The implication by society is that reading can detract from real life. The irony is reading well can ruin the complacency which advocates this hyper-activity.

"Adults absorbed in a good book are sometimes seen as selfish..."I’ve always enjoyed reading. The beauty and economy of language and its power to suggest images is thrilling. I loved reading Mortimer Adler’s How To Read a Book, which encourages readers to make a book their own by active reading. But somewhere along the line my love of reading became compulsive. I became enamored with the idea that reading can improve me. Subtly, the suggestion of the Western Canon as the grail of enlight-enment crept into my consciousness. I started treating my reading lists like spiritual disciplines, and grew anxious at how few books in a year I could read. Finishing books became the focus, instead of feeling them, tracing my own thinking in response to them. Schwartz adroitly calls this vying for approval; someone out there gives you a list, and you complete it, feeling you’ve accomplished something.

Not that having a reading plan is a bad idea. But choosing what to read is complex. “At times the ramifications of choice verge on the metaphysical, the moral, even the absurd. To read the dead or the living, the famous or the ignored, the kindred spirits or the bracingly unfamiliar?” Lynne points out that children read what they want while adults read looking over their shoulders. Interestingly, in Ruined By Reading Lynne talks mostly about books that impacted her as a child. One or her favourite stories as a child was A Little Princess, because it talked about listening to one’s inner voice. A lot of the stories she enjoyed were about this voice and the choices needed to live from its guidance: “We truly are what we feel ourselves to be, [and] we can trust our inner certainty regardless of how others perceive us.” Reading books that tug at you is one way to honour this voice.

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