The National Catholic Review

Every chance I get, I read. But why? For many reasons, of course: to educate myself, for aesthetic pleasure, to gather information and, underlying all the rest, out of a deeply ingrained sense of duty. I suppose a sense of duty is wrapped up in almost everything I do, including reading. Like any properly manufactured Irish Catholic with eight siblings, I am endowed with a keen awareness of what I have done and what I have failed to do.

 

Not surprisingly, whenever someone says something like, "I just love reading. I read all the time," I cringe. You know the type—maybe you are the type—of person who has always just finished not one book, but two or three. Guilt sweeps over me because (a) I feel I’m not reading enough, and (b) I’m not one of those people but wish I were. They’re morally superior to me. They get up at dawn, devour the paper by 6 o’clock and read 100 pages every night before dozing off. I harbor no undue resentment toward them—just the resentment they’re due.

With insufficient time for reading and a superabundance of guilt because of it, how do I explain my frequent bedtime habit? As I do battle with gaping yawns and valiantly marshal the day’s last few drops of energy, my fugitive gaze drifts some two feet to my right, where it lazily alights upon shelf after shelf of adolescent series fiction: Tom Swift, Chip Hilton, The Walton Boys, Tom Corbett: Space Cadet and—most numerous and cherished of all—the Hardy Boys. It’s not unusual to feel myself torn between the stack of engaging, carefully chosen books on my bedside table and a bookcaseful of children’s stories. Should I reach for The Secret of the Lost Tunnel or resume that book on globalism? Dare I explore The Haunted Fort, or ought I finish that biography of Coleridge? The Julian of Norwich book is deeply thought-provoking, but first maybe a quick dip in The Hidden Harbor Mystery.

 

It’s an empty escape into fantasyland, but it’s more than that—more edifying, complex, profound. Really. Still, it makes one wonder. Educated at the world’s finest universities and trained in the interpretation of arcane and subtle texts, I’m still irresistibly drawn to Hardy Boys books. Give me a little quiet time and a stack of my favorite literature and I’m happy, but if you throw in an old Hardy Boys mystery, Pavlov’s bell goes off and I start drooling.

It’s hopelessly lowbrow of me, and—make no mistake—I’m not proud of this vice. But while I can’t deny that it betrays an intellectual and moral flabbiness, I also can’t deny that these books evoke a downy-soft comfort and familiarity. Reading them—hackneyed prose, no-dimensional characters, formulaic plots and all—is like being enfolded in your favorite chair on a rainy afternoon. The first books I ever threw myself into as a boy, they have assumed iconic stature, representative of the primal reading experience: the Ur-book.

When I indulge myself as a reader—when I want a book of no redeeming value, a book with no intellectual, moral, spiritual or literary heft—I want not exactly to be taken out of myself but out of my present self and into a familiar, if mysterious, terrain. I want to retrace old footsteps anew, have the tactile and olfactory experience of holding an old volume, not simply to revisit the preternatural world of Frank and Joe Hardy but to be synesthetically transported to the exact time and place in which I first read the book.

Naysayers have tried over the years to burst my bubble. Once during high school, when I was waxing nostalgic to a Jesuit about my affection for Hardy Boys books, he shook his head, making no effort to conceal his disappointment in me, and sharply denounced them as worthless garbage, an utter waste of time at any age. He dismissed and stifled my protestations with the staggering (yet somehow convincing) claim that he could read any Hardy Boys book in exactly twelve minutes. Ouch.

It’s true that, inexplicably and if only for the opening pages of each book, I still want to experience the Hardy Boy life: the baffling mysteries, the sleuthing, the ubiquitous piping hot apple pie. I want the escape, even though intellectually I reject its overripe unreality. But to be swept away in a delicious if non-nutritious time warp, dwelling for half an hour (or 12 minutes) in the fictional Hardy ethos, is both more and less than an escapist activity. The books exercise what I can only describe as a primordial hold over me. Reading them means treading the decidedly less rosy-hued ground of my own boyhood, recollecting and reflecting myself and life as I knew it through a very particular kind of lens, one that feels the books’ "Gee whiz!" innocence as a perennial (and serial) complement to real-life dreams and deprivations.

Books. They portray and proffer choices and consequences. If we’re lucky, the books we treasure empty us and fill us at the same time. They allow us to slip silently into secret spaces—within ourselves, within the pages—and never to tire of the answers and questions (and mysteries) we find there.

Recently in Columns