Several months ago, one of my mother’s childhood friends died. Margie was a librarian, teacher, writer, activist. Although we hadn’t connected in many years, she remained a vivid part of my memory of childhood, very much the color Red. At her memorial, I laughed when people reminisced about her first sentence, always, upon greeting them or anyone. “She’d ask you what you were reading,” they said, “then judge you for it.” Just that simple line, and she was once again alive, leaning forward with intensity. She was not being polite. That was not her style. But she was deeply interested and there was almost an urgency to the question.
I grew up in a house filled with books. We owned, we borrowed, we loaned. Next to every bedside in the house stood a stack. My mom would read something, then pass it on to me and my siblings.
We read aloud, we stole from our sleep, and if we’d been allowed, would’ve read at the dinner table. (Years later my daughter and I instituted weekly dinnertime reading nights, sitting like an old couple who’d run out of things to say with our books propped in front of our plates.) A family vacation was a chance to read ALL DAY LONG in a lounge chair or on a beach blanket, and we read EVERYTHING. My greatest grief was that I got carsick when I read in the car.
It got so I couldn’t fall asleep unless I read first. And of course in times of trouble, a good story was my doorway to relief.
It was always a bit shocking to discover that not everyone felt that way, to walk into a home and feel the absence of books. There was a wild pull to note which favorites friends and strangers owned, as well as a strange compulsion to read the titles on the shelves behind doctors, therapists, etc. As if by decoding their reading tastes one might understand them more fully?
My mother had several friends like Margie who were librarians, and I was the pet of all of my school librarians as I tried to fulfill my goal of reading their entire inventory shelf by shelf. I even dated the rebel son of one in high school (his taste ran more to Kesey and Kerouac, than Austen) and we broke up in that library, too, I’m suddenly remembering—can visualize the farewell down to the whispers. We never spoke in our everyday voices there— we knew we were somewhere sacred.
Nowadays I don’t know if this kind of book life is possible. Though I know some of my nostalgia is for the endless days of childhood, when I had the privilege of few responsibilities, I think what I miss most is a way of seeing and experiencing the world that is fast vanishing. Something slow and delicious. Dreamy. A partnership between the writer’s vision and the reader’s imagination. Endless possibility.
I do wonder how anyone finds time to read these days with all the distractions and scarcity of time. I still steal from my sleep, can’t get to bed without a night-time snack of words. Is it because I’m a writer or is it because there’s some kind of essential nourishment I can only find in story and ideas? Or is it something so basic, so human, this sharing of tales to ward off the night and the circling wolves?
Book love formed me as a young writer. I credit my parents, my schooling, the libraries, and the permission they gave me to devote my heart to words. And even though I watched plenty of TV, rode my Schwinn endlessly through the back streets of my neighborhood, hung out with my friends and played on school teams, reading was a huge part of my life.
I’m not sure that’s the case for most kids these days—and I don’t know if that is because of all the other demands on their time, the sheer amount of choice and scheduling, or the lack of leisure and “boredom,” that lovely invitation to invention. Perhaps the real question now might be, as my astute friend Pam suggested, not What you are reading, but Are you reading?
Recently, I was walking around my neighborhood and saw an 11-year old perched on her porch engrossed in a paperback. My heart swelled. I felt the urge to shout, “What are you reading?” to carry on Margie’s crusade—perhaps secretly sow the idea that reading might just be cool. So I did. And a doorway opened between us.
Summer is upon us, and I know you’ve got a stack next to your bed. What are you reading? Please share in the comments below.