Nessa Rapoport uses a days-long boat trip with her family’ to their ancestral Ontario vacation cottage (recounted in House on the River: A Summer Journey, Harmony Books, 2004) to uncover the subtle forces that shaped her as a writer, a mother, an observant Jew.
After years of sublimation, of socializing myself not to read at the table or in front of people who deserve my entire attention, I have returned to my first passion with the same shocked intensity with which others have affairs or quit their jobs. Lying in bed, propped on my elbows before a library book with its captivating, unstylish cover, I resume my vocation.
“What are you reading?” my grandmother used to inquire in exactly the tone I once heard a woman at a wedding reception ask seductively of another, “What are you drinking?”
.. .How can I describe the sovereignty of print over me, how I stood in the bookstore until I had devoured Nancy Drew’s exploits, the latest in a series my mother would not buy— although she conceded that in her youth she had loved them as much as I.I coveted the volumes I had not read as if they were a drug, pressuring classmates whose parents were more obliging to lend me their brand-new copies, which I would return the next day after too little sleep.
To open a book and be seduced by the first page, to weep over books until the print danced, to shiver in the backyard through the last daylight because the thought of stopping, even to go inside, could not be borne, to offend my friends when I read their cereal boxes instead of playing—all this was paradise.
Among the most disquieting aspects of new motherhood was the recognition that I could not pick up a book to change my mood or flee my circumstances. I had not realized, until I had babies, how much I relied on reading. Now I experienced my yearning as a curse, for my book beckoned always, even when the children needed me. Twice I can remember reading a book from beginning to end, perched on my bedside uncomfortably, because I had intended simply to taste the writer’s style, while hours passed and I became aware, vaguely, that the children were wild with impatience.
When as a child I told my mother that she was using her “hmm” voice as she read while I was trying to talk to her, she laughed and said she remembered well how she sought her mother’s attention and was met with the same “hmm.”
“I’m the third generation of ‘hmm,'” I would say to Jake, who was not amused. One of my sisters defined motherhood as an attempt to pacify the children so that you could finish your book. When I repeat this bon mot to women who do not share my lust for the transport only a book can offer, they look horrified. But women who are readers offer a smile of complicity. I even allocate a role for God, who, I believe, sends me the book that perfectly matches my need when I am desperate.