Reviewed by Angela L. Eckhart
For any bibliophile, a collection of essays about the love of books can be appealing and perhaps relatable. Essayist Susan Olding’s newest book, Big Reader: Essays (Freehand Books, 2021), features personal essays linking various works of literature she loved to moments in her life, among other reflections.
Although Olding’s education began with studying philosophy, she deviated to essays. “Essays told stories, essays were concrete and intimate instead of abstract and forbidding, essays made me feel smart instead of stupid. They made me feel, period.” Yet she utilizes her philosophical background when analyzing literature, which offers her and her readers a deeper understanding of the works. She says she explores the “relationship of life to literature.”
The essays are arranged in sections cleverly named from the parts of a book, from the beginning Prologue to the end Epilogue. The sections in between are: Verso (the left-hand page of an open book); Hinge (the section between the cover and spine that bends upon opening the book); and Recto (the right-hand page of an open book). Following the Epilogue, Olding also includes an add-on essay in her Addenda, titled, “Unpacking My Library.” She writes about the pandemic giving her the time to reflect and reread literature. At the end of the book in her Notes section, she references dozens of resources. Her scholarly knowledge is evident and extensive. Her topics range from adultery, loss of a pet, and becoming a stepmother to her mother’s vision loss, the many forms/definitions of a “rake,” and the process of blood typing (which I took to mean typing until your fingers bleed; I was wrong).
Among the various reasons we read books — for entertainment, education, and enlightenment — isn’t one of them to find a connection, to feel as if our individual experiences are shared, and to not feel as if we are the only ones? In her essay, “In Anna Karenina Furs,” Olding admits to seeing versions of herself in the character Anna Karenina. She studies Anna’s infidelity while confessing her own. She finds herself relating to Anna’s predicament, stating:
When an adulterous woman rereads her marriage, she also rereads herself. Having prided herself on her virtue, Anna is shocked by her feelings for Vronsky, and no longer knows who she is. ‘Am I myself, or someone else?’ she asks. A hundred years later, faced with the same unexpected emotions, I found myself struggling with the same unanswerable question.
Perhaps this is how Olding searches for guidance, a way for her to figure out why she did what she did, to make meaning of her experience. Furthermore, after Olding re-read Anna Karenina, she realized, “I loved the book, loved it even more than when I’d read it the first time. Coming to it as an adulterous adult, I read it with an almost predatory zeal. I was searching for ways to exculpate myself.” The universal ideas from great books encompass human experience, and the truths found within are often profound. Ultimately, regarding her adultery, she philosophizes, “In the years since, I’ve come to recognize that ‘exciting’ doesn’t always mean good. Sometimes it just means self-absorbed.” Similarly, many other readers will be able to relate with Olding’s sentiments.
Likewise, anyone who has owned and loved a cat will identify with her essay, “A Pilgrimage to Hampstead, or Household Pets of the Great and Lesser Poets.” She writes how Sid was her feline friend, a loyal companion whose presence followed her through joblessness, a new teaching job, and the beginning and end of a marriage. “He was a great friend to me, and when he died, I grieved for him as I might have grieved for a child.” The essay further discusses her inability to conceive and her struggle in completing a novel. Her sadness led her to reading John Keats. This is a good example of Olding’s desire to connect with someone else’s grief and not feel alone. She writes:
I may have remembered something about his [Keats] hard life and must have known that suffering was his great subject. But this time, my immersion in his work was deeper. Reading his poems, I felt I was inside them. I could have repeated them in my sleep.
She later explains that her new “obsession” with Keats stimulated her desire to visit his home, and many tourists’ curiosities take them to homes of prolific authors and poets. She says, “Literary travel…is a journey of great moral significance; we undertake it hoping to experience something that will strengthen and confirm our faith. We undertake it hoping to be changed.” She wraps up this essay by noticing a cat sleeping in Keats’ preserved room, “…keeping company with the poet’s spirit.” It was just like Sid keeping her company.
While many of her essays about her personal experiences combine with her philosophical views of great literature, another essay highlights the ease in consuming books through technology with her mother’s vision loss.
One’s ability to read—or listen—to a book have increased because of those digital options available. Olding references the March 2020 report by the National Endowment of the Arts, “…about thirty per cent of readers now switch easily between print books, digital material, and audiobooks….” While there are varying opinions on which one is better, admittedly all of them offer more benefits than in previous years, especially for those losing their vision. She explains how her family purchased a “Big Reader” for her mother, a device that significantly enlarges text. This was the same machine my grandmother used after succumbing to macular degeneration.
Perhaps my favorite essay is “Another Writer’s Beginnings.” Olding recalls how she came to discover her imagination (a unique and enjoyable story) and eventually writing. Even though she encounters resistance and stops writing, she eventually realizes that she must write. “I might go without writing for a week, a month, for half a year. But in my head, sentences were always taking shape; in my heart, I knew I was living a lie.”
Writers will write, just as readers will read. The essays contained within Big Reader are creative, relevant, and insightful, and Olding doesn’t hesitate to get personal with her readers. Ultimately, her book of essays about loving books is interesting and significant.