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When Jane Tompkins Couldn't Move, She Read

Wednesday 24 July 2019


From The Christian Century:


Reading Through The Night

Reading Through the Night

By Jane Tompkins

University of Virginia Press



When Jane Tompkins couldn’t move, she read

Confined by illness, the feminist literary scholar dove into the complete works of V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux.

In Review
By Shirley Hershey Showalter
July 22, 2019
© 2019 The Christian Century. All rights reserved.

On one level, Jane Tompkins’s memoir is about reading. She analyzes the complete works of two authors, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux, and along the way she cites a broad swath of writers, from journalists and mystery writers to the poet Emily Dickinson.

On another level, it’s a story of illness. “For many years I’d had a little-understood illness called myalgic en­cepha­lo­myelitis . . . known until recently as chronic fatigue syndrome.” The illness shapes the author’s situation and many of her metaphors. Unlike many illness memoirs, however, Tompkins’s does not probe medical research or the historical context of her illness; illness is simply the big, bold fact that stands behind everything else.

Tompkins is a feminist literary critic whose renown is built on a handful of books and the essays of the 1990s, “Me and My Shadow” and “The Way We Live Now,” both of which challenged the modern university from within. She tells her story with the perspicacity of a postcolonial literature scholar, and she structures it like a detective novel. Of all the books she reads while reclining on the couch or lying in bed, she wonders, why does Theroux’s Sir Vidia’s Shadow capture her? How does it restore energy even while it reveals hard truth after hard truth? And what message does it have for the reader?

The answers may be less important than the process of seeking them. Tompkins models a way of reading that requires the reader to be vulnerable: look for the subtexts and various perspectives embedded in the writer’s story and then turn the camera around and look at your own life. Such reflection may lead to envy (and Tompkins is honest about her envy of other writers), to gratitude, or even to a revelation.

Confined by her illness much of the time, Tompkins reads voraciously, even as she laments the passive nature of reading. As she reads, she finds in her suffering something like a gift. It’s a gift that she didn’t wish on herself, she says, but she has long desired the result: a fading of the ego that leads to deeper interaction with texts and new ways of making meaning. As her physical agency wanes, she draws closer to the page, craving a real encounter with the inner lives of characters. She’s no longer reading to gain tenure or win an academic prize; now she’s reading for her life.


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