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.