It was a question that brought me out of the book back to the present. I had been reading for the better part of an hour. As usual for me on a Sunday morning, I closed myself off from the rest of my house, from the rest of my family, by barricading myself in my bedroom with a book. This time I was about two hundred pages into Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton when I heard the voices of the book calling me back. My wife was doing laundry and I could hear her on her cell phone. I could feel the jumping coming from downstairs as my children horsed around doing whatever it is that children do when the parents are out of the room. I tried to close my consciousness off to these sounds of domestication as best as I could and concentrate on what I was reading. And for a while I was successful. I fell once again into the pages of the book detailing Rushdie’s life under the fatwa.
“When’s daddy coming back?” It was my daughter Emilia, asking her mother about me. From that moment on I lost all connection with the book. I was still, listening to the conversation my three year-old was having with her mother. I was struck by two things almost immediately: one, that the level of conversation was unusually sophisticated for a three year-old, and two, that I immediately felt a profound sense of guilt. I had closed myself off so completely that my daughter didn’t even realize I was in the house. I’ve felt guilty before. I’m often away, sometimes very far away, and while I find these trips are essential for my intellectual and general evolution as a human being, they do put an enormous amount of pressure on my family. It’s hard being away from one’s wife and children, especially when there’s an ocean between you. But this was different. Here I was in the same house, yet miles away. As I lay there, I couldn’t help but think about how much time I spend reading. Every moment spent reading means that I am not with my family, even if I’m in the same room. Do I spend too much time reading? Is this turning into something unhealthy? Perhaps I have deep-seated psychological problems that prevent me from spending time with flesh and blood people since I’m always itching to get back to a book.
This is an occupational hazard for professors of literature. It is our business, our obligation to read, and this activity requires us to spend large amounts of time alone. The solitariness required by reading books is not, however, lonely. By reading we find ourselves walking paths with an interesting and diverse set of companions. In many ways I’m mush closer to the characters I read in novels than I am to my own flesh and blood friends. For example, I still consider Don Quixote one of my closest companions. Having said that, I would like to believe that my relationship with books could never supersede my relationship with my wife and children. However, hearing my daughter ask: “When’s daddy coming back” threw me for a loop. So, plagued with an intense and almost debilitating sense of guilt, I closed the book and went to play with her. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that the book was always there, calling me away from my family like one of the Sirens encountered by Odysseus. I guess that we all carry our own Ithacas inside us, but the real challenge is to find one’s way back to the Ithaca that matters.