Bay Reads - December 2018
The Unpunished Vice: A Lifetime of Reading
by Edmund White
I’m not a conversationalist at an altitude of 28,000 feet. While holding a book, it is common courtesy, at least to me, to respect the privacy of the reader. In other words, please leave me alone.
With time during the day a precious commodity, I read every spare minute to the exclusion of much of the daily rabble and rattling in our raucous existence.
Edmund White is a novelist, biographer and essayist. His fiction includes The Beautiful Room is Empty, The Farewell Symphony, and Fanny: A Fiction. He has penned biographies of Marcel Proust and Jean Genet. He was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1940 and resides in New York City.
Employing his remarkable and voluminous memory, White recounts his reading and the impact of the works on his life and world view as he matured from teenager to septuagenarian.
I packed The Unpunished Vice for a recent flight to Washington, D.C., connecting through Atlanta. Traveling with books requires planning. I spend far more time fussing over what I want to take along to read than I do with tossing a few clean shirts and socks in a Samsonite. My luggage invariably holds two or three books, more if the trip is longer, and one or two in my backpack that I carry on the plane.
Once, I made the error of packing five books, including two hardbacks, in my suitcase. I was pulled out of the airport security line by a TSA agent after “suspicious objects” were detected in my suitcase that I just placed on the conveyor belt to move through the scanning machine.
“Why?” I asked.
“You may have hollowed out the insides of the books and placed prohibited or dangerous substances in them. It’s not normal to have that many books in a bag.”
Advanced age teaches me to hold my tongue, but not my thoughts.
“Oh, ok," I said while thinking, Yes, the books do contain dangerous things. They are called ideas.
When no incendiary chemicals were found in the books, with a wary eye, the deflated TSA agent waved me through.
I don’t fare well either at times in the seat mate lottery. On a more recent flight, while reading The Unpunished Vice, ensconced in words and intriguing thoughts, Flem Carbuncle (I don’t know if that was his name, but it fits) sat beside me, overfilling the narrow seat.
“Yes,” I said curtly.
“My grandmother was from up north there in Tennessee and she wrote a little book once before she died,” he blathered, oblivious to the fact I was not fully listening.
“Oh, that’s interesting.”
“The little book was about the pixies and faeries that she believed visited her at night in her sleep and gave her advice when she was upset or worried.”
Contrary to the title of White’s book. I felt I was being punished for my vice of reading.
Aloft, the clouds thousands of feet below, after the stewards and stewardesses have docked the beverage cart and my overhead reading light is the one beacon in an otherwise dark cabin on a red eye flight, I think of this passage from a letter written by Virginia Woolf to a friend, “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading.”