I Read A Lot, But That Doesn’t Make Me a Better Person

I don’t remember being read to much as a child, but if you take this statement at face value it would be a terrible slander of my mother.  I know she read to me constantly until I learned to read at the age of four but after that I wanted to do my own reading.  I have a brilliant, sparkling memory of the moment I realized, sitting cross-legged on my bedroom carpet in a sharply edged square of bright morning sunlight, that I could read.  The thin shadows of leafless lilac branches shivered on the pages of the book I had just pulled out from the bottom shelf of the white-painted bookcase my dad had built for me.  My dad and brother were on ladders outside the window doing something, perhaps pruning the lilacs or washing the windows, and I could see the shadows of their upper bodies moving as they worked and spoke to each other.  I looked up and saw them, my dad in his paint stained work shirt and my brother in a short sleeved shirt of plaid, and then I looked down at the words on the page and realized that I knew what they were. I read through the whole book to be sure, then double-checked with another book, and it was true.  I stood up and banged on the window and shouted, “Hey!  I can read!”  And there was great rejoicing.

I became a good reader, a fast reader with excellent comprehension skills, and I showed this off horribly, developing the obnoxious habit of carrying thick books with bookmarks placed ostentatiously near the end.  This was always remarked upon by adults who must have seen through my motives but kindly humoured* me anyway with expressions of disbelief and admiration, even if I sometimes had to hold the book right in their faces to elicit these compliments.

 

My parents certainly encouraged me to read, but not to read for twenty-four hours a day to the exclusion of everything else which is what I probably would have done if left to myself.  Reading was a treat for the end of the day, after the work was done.  Back then I worked about as willingly as I do now, which is not very willingly at all.  It was not my parents’ fault that I could stretch a twenty-minute set of chores over three very difficult and whiny hours.  I could not simply do the chores quickly and efficiently and then read; no, I had to be sneaky.  I stashed books all around the house, under sofa cushions, in the garage in case I was sent there on an errand and could snatch a few sentences before I had to go back into the house, under the stack of towels in the bathroom cupboard, cleverly concealed leaning upright against the front wall of the deep lower dining room cabinet where we kept serving dishes.

In order to read at the table (also forbidden, of course) I kept a book on my seat of my chair at the dining room table, concealed by the long tablecloth.  I developed a way of sliding into my chair without pulling it out all the way, my rear end grazing the chair seat and sliding the book into my left hand so I could catch it while pretending to adjust my skirt.  Then I could hold the book in my lap and by sucking in my stomach I could see to read the bottom half of the pages.  When I needed to read the top half  I dropped a fork or napkin on the floor and, leaning down to retrieve it, read quickly while I groped blindly around the floor with my right hand.

It is not an exaggeration to say that I always either had a book openly in hand or concealed about my person or I knew exactly where the nearest one was. You have seen the anxiety that some teenagers exhibit when they are deprived of their phones.  This is how I felt if there was nothing to read. I remember in desperation reading the label on a fire extinguisher, and this more than once.  This led to planning ahead.  (If you ask The Patient Man, he will say that this was probably the only planning ahead I have ever accomplished.)  Each week I carried a thin book to church concealed between my Bible and my quarterly. At school, against the rules I carried a book out to recess tucked up under my jacket and pressed against my body by my left arm, or in good weather, simply stuffed into the front of my jeans and covered by my blouse, so that I could read on a playground swing, my back to the classroom window or the recess supervisor, idly pushing at the ground with my toe when I remembered to do so. For my during class time fix there was a book flattened open and carefully counterweighted and cantilevered to project from the narrow top shelf of my desk so that by tipping back in my chair and looking sneakily from the corner of my eye I could snatch a few sentences between spelling words or during absolutely pointless explanations of stupid math topics which would do me no good to listen to anyway.  During sixth grade science class I once awoke to the fact that the lecture had ceased, the classroom was silent and the teacher was nowhere to be seen.  I finally located him directly behind me; he was looking over my shoulder at the book I had propped open behind my open science book.  I wasn’t sure how long he had been there but I definitely had the impression it was quite awhile.

Of course I read in bed but I was expected to turn out the light and go to sleep at a reasonable time which did not seem at all reasonable to me.  I did not read by flashlight with my head under the covers because I don’t like things over my head, but I would get out of bed and lean against my dresser over by the slightly open door, shrugging this way and that to avoid the angular brass drawer pulls, awkwardly tilting the book to best catch the narrow wedge of light from the hallway.  Our house had deep carpeting over thick padding laid on concrete floors, as silent as poor frightened Lucy Pevensie found the Magician’s House, but fortunately the light source was at the far end of the hall and anyone starting toward the bedrooms cast a long warning shadow.  The silent floors worked to my advantage, too, as I dashed for my bed.

Having just spent way more words than necessary describing my love of books, it may seem hypocritical when I tell you that I shudder when people smugly describe themselves as ‘avid’ or ‘voracious’ readers.  These terms seem so self-congratulatory.  Why is a person, like me, who takes their entertainment in book form to be especially congratulated?  Reading is my form of escapist entertainment and why should it necessarily, regardless of content, rate higher on an intellectual scale than watching television?  The books on my current list are hardly erudite.  Here is what is stacked on my nightstand at the present moment, part of my latest haul of practically free books from the Goodwill:  Accordion Wars by Annie Proulx, three books by Alexander McCall Smith (The Miracle at Speedy Motors, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, and The Charming Quirks of Others), a glossy-covered thick hardback called Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes which I grabbed because I love Downton Abbey and I hope it’s the same Julian Fellowes, although I haven’t investigated this yet, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, which I meant to buy back when it was new but didn’t want to pay full price for,  and Next of Kin by Joanna Trollope which I chose because I loved The Rector’s Wife and The Choir.  (As far as I’m concerned, though, Next of Kin isn’t in the same league.)  I started reading Joanna Trollope because she is a descendent of the novelist Anthony Trollope, a fact which I envy her, but after I read and liked her books I realized I hadn’t actually ever read anything by the illustrious ancestor, so when I happened upon a boxed set (obviously unread) of the Palliser Novels I grabbed them, and they are sitting over on my dresser (still obviously unread).  One of these days.

Anyway, as you can see, the above selections are not the reading list for a serious course of self-improvement; perhaps none are as low on the scale as Two and a Half Men, but they really do not rise much above, say, The Big Bang Theory on the low end and Downton Abbey on the high end.  That, however, doesn’t at all prevent me from putting on a seriously superior attitude and selecting some of my biggest, nastiest words to use in sharp, pointy sentences when I’m trying to read and The Patient Man is thoughtlessly ruining my peace and quiet by roaring at whatever fourth-rate sitcom happens to be on at the moment even though he’s seen it fifty-two times already.  The number of times I might have already read the book he’s so rudely interrupting is totally beside the point.

That’s enough for an introduction.  In the next installment I’ll give you a list of the beloved books of my childhood.  They probably won’t be the books you are expecting.

Alrighty then, see you next week,

<KK>


*
 You may notice that I use many British spellings.  This is because I am a snob.

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2 Responses to “I Read A Lot, But That Doesn’t Make Me a Better Person”

  1. Jessica Manuel Says:

    You are exactly right. Books are a drug and we practice escaping reality just like anyone else. We are not better, just different.

  2. Jennifer Elizabeth Says:

    Your post made it all come flashing back … my fifth grade teacher with her deceptively calm Southern drawl sneaking (lumbering) up behind me and expressing her displeasure that I dared to hide “Caddie Woodlawn” behind my math textbook. It was about the most intolerable thing a civilized, well-behaved child could have done to fractions.

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