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ATG Book of the Week: Reading Through the Night

by | Aug 8, 2018 | 0 comments

Title: Reading through the Night 
Author: Jane Tompkins
Hardcover: 978-0813941592, $27.95
Imprint: Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2018

“Jane Tompkins, a renowned literature professor and award-winning author, thought she knew what reading was until, struck by a debilitating illness, she finds herself reading day and night because it is all she can do. A lifelong lover of books, she realizes for the first time that if you pay close attention to your reactions as you read, literature can become a path of self-discovery.

Tompkins’s inner journey begins when she becomes captivated unexpectedly by an account of friendship between two writers to whom she’d given little thought, Paul Theroux and V. S. Naipaul. Theroux’s memoir launches her on a path of introspection that stretches back to the first weeks of her life in a Bronx hospital, and forward to her relationship with her mother and the structure of her present marriage. Her reading experience, intensified by the feelings of powerlessness and loss of self that come with chronic illness, expands to include writers such as Henning Mankell and Ann Patchett, Alain de Botton, Elena Ferrante, and Anthony Trollope. As she makes her way through their books, she recognizes herself in them, stumbling across patterns of feeling and behavior that have ruled her without her knowing it―envy, a desire for fame, fear of confronting the people she loves, a longing for communion.

The reader, along with Tompkins, comes to the realization that literature can be not only a source of information and entertainment, not only a balm and a refuge, but also a key to unlocking long-forgotten memories that lead to a new understanding of one’s life.”


A surprising, ambitious memoir that raises important questions about what it is that we are doing when we read. Through a series of literary adventures Tompkins shares a journey to new self-knowledge. Her story will engage all book lovers for whom reading is a lifeline.

(Nancy K. Miller, the Graduate Center, CUNY, author of Breathless: An American Girl in Paris)

A woman lies in bed, reading. She isn’t well, and some days reading is all she can do. As she reads she comes to understand a lot about herself―her upbringing, her fears and her envy, her privileges, her life’s steps and missteps. She is not reading for culture or academic privilege. She is reading to save her life. I loved reading with Tompkins as she lingers over books by Naipaul, Theroux, Dickinson, and Patchett and lets their stories open windows of all kinds. Every book group in the country should be reading Reading through the Night, for the conversations it will provoke, for the reading it will inspire, and for its captivating wisdom and grace.

(Alice Kaplan, author of Looking for “The Stranger”: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic)

Reading through the Night is a vital manifesto on the importance of reading. It is not simply a reminder that literature can enrich us; it is a statement about the ability to live a rich and fulfilling life of the mind even when the body betrays us. Jane Tompkins guides us through what might have been a devastating loss―a disease that deprives her of her basic physical abilities―but instead becomes a new way of experiencing the world, and understanding her personal experience in the world, through a closer and more attentive relationship with words on the page. I have a profoundly altered appreciation for what literature offers us after reading this memoir.

(Alden Jones, author of The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia)



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