Considering: Two Essays About Reading

Cynthia Ozick’s A Drugstore in Winter

Eudora Welty’s A Sweet Devouring

I didn’t intend to review two essays for this post, but as I flipped through my books of essays, trying to choose what to write about, I suddenly noticed a sort of synchronicity between these two brilliantly written essays that demanded attention.

Ozick’s piece was written in 1982, while Welty’s was written in 1957; both are short in length (under 7 pages), and are, of course, written by women. But the really striking similarity between them is their content. Both essays are about how Welty and Ozick respectively read and read and read through their childhoods. How they were formed by reading. And, also similarly, neither of them were forced to read what might be considered ‘great literature.’ Theirs is the joy of cheap, sensational kids’ books.

Ozick writes about how, as a child in her parents’ pharmacy, she sits, “driving in rapture through the Violet Fairy Book and the Yellow Fairy Book, insubstantial chariots…” Ozick writes about how, as a child in her parents’ pharmacy, she sits, “driving in rapture through the Violet Fairy Book and the Yellow Fairy Book, insubstantial chariots…”

Chariots. Having, as of 5pm this afternoon, read this word to describe the feeling of reading, I consider Ozick to be a woman who understands reading better than almost anyone I know. I remember the chariots of my youth: The Babysitters Club. (You will note that there is *no* apostrophe there.)

And Welty writes about how she read even the books she didn’t enjoy, the books that disappointed her, “The pleasures of reading itself – who doesn’t remember? – were like those of a Christmas cake, a sweet devouring.”

Devouring. Yup, I remember that feeling, too. I read The Babysitters Club books over and over and over, just needing something to consume through my eyeballs, something to chariot me away from my absolutely normal and fine middle-class suburban home.

Similarly, too, theirs is the constant trip to the library; theirs the effort to get enough to read to never run out…

Welty notes that she “liked reading the book all right – except that I finished it.” Ozick, 25 years later, echoes Eudora, “I have picked the fattest [books], to last. All the same, the Violet and the Yellow are melting away. Their pages dwindle.”

To read two brilliant writers discussing their love of reading is a testament to the power of reading in young lives. But to see how two such brilliant writers can start with their love of reading and end up in such wildly different thoughts is a testament to the power the essay form. Essays can, like no other kind of nonfiction writing, ramble and digress. Tumble through thoughts and gather ideas, like otherworldly bouquets of wild flowers and shop-bought bread.

Welty is telling us how her love of reading, her need to have more and more, lead to her general disappointment with children’s series books, as she realised “as long as they are keeping a series going, I was afraid, nothing can really happen.” And she ends with how her disappointment guided her to read ‘great literature’…  namely Mark Twain. A neat ending, then, rather upbeat, with great hope for the young Eudora as she continues on her reading adventures.

But Ozick ends up somewhere much darker… her chariots took her away, almost too far. She enjoys delving into the books because she ‘becomes’ the characters in her mind: “I am Jo in her ‘vortex’… I am under an enchantment: who I truly am must be deferred.”

Ozick, as a child, puts off knowing herself, for the pleasure of being other children. And, though she eventually grows into a writer (obviously), she finds herself bewildered at trying to write a summary of how she came to be where she is. For her, understanding her childhood love of reading is about the forming of her identity and about loss, about “panic and dread.”

It’s a terrifying, inconclusive end to an essay, a staring into a chasm… which I can only recommend reading for yourself.