“Have we read . . .?”

Have we read . . .? is a question that my wife sometimes asks me. The meaning of the question is clear enough. She wants to know if I recall a book that she or I might have read. The form of the question suggests something else: the custom in some golden, earlier time when one spouse might, of an evening, read to the other and so provide entertainment or a means to reflection. Now, my wife has often been kind enough to read to me, especially if she finds a passage in a book or magazine that she thinks I might like, but neither of us regularly reads to the other an entire work or article. To her question then, in a fit of pique, I sometimes reply, No, I do not remember our having read that author, with unpleasant emphasis on the our. I must hurriedly apologize after that for I am indebted to her for recommending very many books that I have enjoyed.But this leads me to another point: surely we are not alone as husband and wife in having authors whose works we both read and then authors who are either hers or mine. Likewise there are a few periodicals that are mine and a few that are hers. I find myself asking how this comes about and why. In the case of magazines or literary publications, I think the separations arise as a matter of either interest or initiative my long years of teaching English literature might account for my reading of the TLS, the LRB and the NYRB (and of course Commonweal). The New Yorker is almost entirely hers and I would feel ashamed if I tried to read any of an issue before she has a chance to look at it thoroughly. This is not to say that there are no crossovers, but for the most part the separations hold.As for authors, perhaps a simply explanation is one provided by our history: I spent less time reading fiction than my wife has throughout our lives together. That which I read was often dictated by a teachers concern: Can I use this in class? Only recently, since my retirement, have I been able to do range as widely as I like and, truth to tell, overcome the prejudices against thrillers and who-done-its. In addition, noir fiction has become something of an obsession, one that my wifes tastes do not include. I will admit to possessiveness, in the competitive sense, although the very admission seems impossibly silly and mean- spirited. And yet we both seem to respect limitations, a sense of something being out of bounds. This give and take must be part of the negotiations that all couples undergo in growing together and yet remaining, of necessity, in some way independent.There remains, happily and more often, the pleasure of joint discoveries: what the new book shelf of the library offers by way of something by an unknown author or one only half-remembered. We do not so much live in a world of books, but in a world touched by fiction, to the extent that what is the quotidian of our lives can include the extraordinary, and that shared. The contract between writer and reader does not demand exclusion, yet the very absorption in a particular work can, at times, foster a sense of a unique bond, one that applies just to you as you read. Perhaps the greatest form of reading generosity is to resist the temptation to hoard this or that book and simply offer to someone else what seems too dear to give away.

Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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