The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. That means someone is confessing again.…
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My grandmother became a Reader in her late 80s, by accident.
Her early education in the east of Poland during the third decade of the last century was interrupted by World War II when she finished grade 4. She never went back to school. Moving to Poland’s capital after the war, she took up manual labor right away to make ends meet.
She is a bright and curious woman but was equipped with only rudimentary schooling. Just enough reading to follow the newspapers, just enough writing to fill out forms at the employment office, just enough maths to budget her rent and groceries, but barely any history or geography and no cultural education whatsoever. Her entire life, she made up for her lack of theoretical skills and factual knowledge in the know-how of getting by in the rough reality of the Eastern Block. During days filled with hard work at the factory, homemaking, childcare, and sustaining social relations with friends and family, she had no time for books anyway.
But time passed and eventually, the children grew up and moved out. She retired, so the manual labor ended. Finally, even her husband passed away. There wasn’t enough housekeeping to fill her days, especially as she grew weaker with age and numerous ailments, and the hardest chores were taken over by kids, grandkids, and friendly neighbors.
One afternoon, after having just washed her windows, I accidentally turned my grandma into a Reader.
“May I borrow this book?” I pulled a hardcover from the shelf I was about to begin dusting. “I wanted to read it for a while, but my library doesn’t have it.”
“Sure!” Grandma seemed surprised I would even ask. “Most of these books belonged to your grandfather or your mother anyway, so they are also yours. Is this book good?” She gestured as I was putting it into my bag and preparing the dusting cloth.
“I hope so. But the best way to find out would be to read it yourself. Everyone has a different taste.”
Grandma just made a dismissive gesture with her hand. “You know I’m not educated.” She said. “I never read books, I know nothing about them.”
I shrugged, thanked her again for lending me the book, and continued cleaning. I knew she was never fond of reading and didn’t think she would want to argue about this choice with her granddaughter. However, it turned out I had planted a seed because five days later Grandma called me to announce she had read a book. She picked one out at random from the shelf and just delved into it.
Two months later, Grandma was officially a Reader. In her days filled with very few duties, she was making her way through the shelves at an amazing pace. Picking up novels one after another in random order, she seemed to enjoy the process of engaging with a story much more than the stories themselves. She would underline words that she didn’t understand and ask whoever happened to be visiting that day for definitions. I was thrilled to be able to chat with her about her impressions of the latest read.
What I found both exciting and incomprehensible these first months of her readership was how she seemed to not have developed any kind of specific taste. She liked every book she picked up, from romance novels apparently left behind by my mother and contemporary novels by Polish authors preferred by my grandfather through non-fiction concerning world history and politics, to tomes detailing the lives of saints of the Catholic Church. I tried a few times to ask which ones she liked most to understand her preferences, but she always replied that she liked them all.
Grandma just fell in love with books in this beautiful all-consuming way a child falls in love with movie theatres. They don’t care what film they’ll see, just as long as they get to experience the big screen. Picking up a book was like this to Grandma. She was enticed by the experience of reading itself. I suppose it feels to her a little like listening to someone’s oral tale or reading a letter. Even though Grandma has frequent visitors, her life must feel much more lonely than ever before. Books are known for giving people a sense of connectedness and perhaps this is also what they did to Grandma during that initial period.
Things changed after around a year into her readership. She greeted me at the door and before I could even put down the groceries I got for her, she grabbed my arm.
“Tess!” She whisper-shouted with glowing eyes. “Have you ever heard of this writer — Dostoevsky?”
I was a little confused as to why this was suddenly so important, so I just nodded shyly. In my world, everyone has heard of Dostoevsky so this question seemed odd.
Over the next ten minutes, Grandma recounted to me discovering Dostoevsky. As you can imagine, she just took his book from the shelf, as she had done with so many books already. “I noticed that he was probably Russian, because of the name.” She detailed her impressions. For historical reasons, which to her were contemporary, she wasn’t overly fond of Russians. Still, she decided that a book was a book and Communism was certainly no personal fault of Dostoevsky’s — whoever he was.
Once she started reading, she could not take her eyes off the text. She finished the novel — “The Brothers Karamazov” no less — in five days and immediately returned to the shelf to search for more books by Dostoevsky. To her delight, she found two more and also inhaled them whole.
“Such good books!” She told me. “I’ve never read such good books before. You have to read Dostoevsky, Tess!” She repeated to me at least five times during that visit. I told her I’ve read two and she was thrilled to discuss them with me. At that point, my 80-year-old Grandma with 4 grades worth of primary school had better knowledge of Dostoevsky’s work than my college-educated self. And she was thirsty for more.
I promised to bring her all the books I could find by Dostoevsky, which I promptly did along with next week’s groceries. I also threw in “Anna Karenina” for good measure, and “The Three Musketeers” hoping to expand her taste in the genre and keep her satisfied for some time. She did admit that she liked them more than the ones she was finding on her shelf before, but so far nothing I recommended to her quite compared to the awe she felt reading “The Brothers Karamazov” for the first time.
* * *
The anecdote of how my Grandmother discovered Dostoevsky is still one of my favorites to share with friends and acquaintances. One of the most common responses I get is people saying they are jealous of this experience. “This should be the only permissible way to read Dostoevsky,” one person remarked. “This really proves what books are truly worthy” noted another.
Frankly, I’m not so sure whether this story should be read as a validation of the superior quality of Dostoevsky’s novels. What I learned from all the times speaking to her about books is that reading is a very personal experience to her that has little to do with quality evaluation. She likes the stories, the characters, the way they flow from the paper into her imagination. Despite her impressive track record with the classics of world literature, she still has no academic understanding of all the nuances that go into fully judging the quality of fiction. In “The Brother’s Karamazov” she found something uniquely touching, something that resonated with her emotions. That fact that it happened to be Dostoevsky, internationally acclaimed by experts, is probably just serendipity at its finest.
Eventually, I run out of ideas for classic novels that I could feed to her story-thirsty brain, but she seemed content to return to her home shelves that still contained some volumes she hadn’t read. Among them was an encyclopedia of world literature that she approached the way she approached novels — reading each word from cover to cover. She told me later, that she was a little surprised to find the entry on Dostoevsky there. “It turns out he is famous.” She mused a few times since. “That’s very good. People should read those books.”
To her, I think, it still feels like she discovered him. Like her relationship with Dostoevsky’s work stands out from all reviews that informed the encyclopedia entry. And I think she is right. I’m still looking for a book that would make me feel such pure emotional pull. I’m hopeful I’ll experience this one day, even if I have to wait until I’m retired and burrowing through unknown titles in search of another story.
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