Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Study Abroad

In the fall of 2005, my husband and I moved to London. He was completing his second year of law school, and I, essentially, was tagging along. I got a job working in the private insurance billing department at a hospital. I also got pregnant. Being in the family way did nothing to improve my commute to work, which involved a nearly hour ride from our studio in West Kensington.

Despite the nausea, my commute did offer me one incredible benefit: nearly 2 hours each day to dedicate to reading. I quickly learned how to jockey for a seat on the train- a task that became increasingly easier as my pregnancy advanced. The passengers on the tube were, in general, English reserved, but I learned fairly early on that they still noticed what I was reading. Case in point, I received more than my fair share of dirty looks when I read Philip Roth's The Plot Against America - the cover of which was branded with a swastika.

Maybe this public scrutiny is why I became such an ambitious reader during my stint abroad. I discovered The Modern Library's 100 Best Novels, and I determined to read at least the top ten. I passed my time on the train reading Lolita, Catch 22, The Grapes of Wrath, Sons and Lovers, Darkness at Noon. I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but found that even public scrutiny was not enough motivation to compel me to finish Ulysess.

Turns out, London is a wonderful city for a reader. The platform walls of the tube areplastered with advertisements for new novels. My walk to the musty old library in Hammersmith took me down quaint roads, with lovely, grassy medians that were filled with wild daffodils in the spring. I got on a Margaret Atwood kick, and, one morning, in the middle of reading Oryx and Crake, discovered in The Guardian that she was doing a reading of her new book Penelopiad that very evening. And so, quite simply, that night I went and saw Margaret Atwood.

Of course, my time spent in London wasn't all strawberries and cream. I was homesick and pregnant. My co-workers didn't get my sense of humor. I spent a lot of time alone, worrying about my baby, worrying about my complexion, worrying about everything. I think now I may have been mildly depressed. I remember one Saturday in particular, when my husband was claimed by his studies, and I was, once again, home alone. I went to the Tate Modern, but, somewhere between the first and second floor, my depression claimed me. I rushed back to our studio apartment, feeling like something inside of me was breaking down. I cried. And then, I picked up The Time Traveler's Wife, tucked myself into bed, and read. As I read, I escaped from my studio apartment, I escaped from my loneliness, I escaped from my anxiety, I escaped from myself.

Okay, I know what you're thinking. Cue the Reading Rainbow theme song if you must, but really, it's true. Reading does allow you to go anywhere - even when you're already far from home.


  1. Kim, I liked this post, a lot. If this is what we can expect on Wednesdays, I think it a bright spot in the middle of the week.

    Which of the Top 100 did you personally like best?

  2. Ah - this brings back great memories from my two trips to London and riding the tube! So cool you got to live there for a while.

  3. Suze, I would have to say Grapes of Wrath, but I am partial to Steinbeck. And I definitely haven't read all of the Top 100 yet :) I wish.
    Stacy, I know, London is just wonderful! I think your recent post about it inspired this one :)

  4. I absolutely loved this post. I realized this morning that I've not really READ much lately. I've been so busy with life and writing -- I have put reading on the back burner. But I think it's time for me to jump in again. Thanks for sharing!

  5. I loved London... but I was only there for four days! Funny, I usually take a book with me on vacation. What I need to do is to read while I am home and go sight seeing on the vacation. :)
    Love this post. How miserable to not have co-workers get your sense of humor!

  6. Kim, of the top dollar, I loved, and am certain I always will, 'Catcher,' best.

    I never liked Steinbeck as much as I liked Huxley and Fitzgerald. I read a few others, on there. 'Winesburg, Ohio' and some Conrad, among others. He was on there more than twice. Impressive. I was happy to see S. King on the 'people's choice' list. Just makes you feel like 'the greats' are still among us and eating at Denny's or whatever. :)

  7. Kim! I didn't know you lived in London--color me four shades of green! It's like you were some sort of SteinHemingwayFitzgeraldJoyce ex-pat! My respect for you just grows and grows. Sounds like you had some really cool experiences over there. No wonder you're such a good writer.

    A number of years ago, I subscribed to Easton Press's 100 Greatest Books of the 20th Century and I read the first 12 or so before I couldn't afford the subscription any more. I love Steinbeck--I think you know that already--but there were a few on that list that I also loved. Catch 22 was great. Darkness at Noon I liked a lot. Up to this point in my life, I'm not as enthusiastic about Joyce as a lot of crazy people are. (No offense to the crazies out there). But you're right about reading. It has always been, and will always be the best therapy for me that money can buy.

  8. I'm sure reading on the tube wasn't as romantic as it sounds, but I sounds lovely to me :)

  9. Suze - Catcher. Holden Caulfield is inimitable. Yes, yes, I love that one, too.
    Curtis - I agree about the Joyce crazies. Honestly, I do not get Ulysses. Part of me thinks that great fiction is something that is accessible. I've never heard of the Easton Press - will check that out.
    Angie - Time has a way of romanticizing all of our memories :) Thank goodness.

  10. I'm glad you found a way to deal with a difficult situation. I would think being pregnant and living in a foreign country would be a tough combination. When I was pregnant, especially with my first, I really appreciated being around family.

  11. Great story! I'm so glad I found your blog. Being somewhere new and pregnant is a lot to handle. I tend to read more when I'm going through tough times, if only to escape from the drama of life. It's nice to get to know you!