Secrets of the Reading Machines, or My Slow Recovery from Book-Shame

Have you ever heard that a school of piranhas can strip a cow carcass to the bone in minutes? Terrifying thought, isn’t it?

Imagine a single piranha doing that.

Now imagine that the piranha is a woman wearing reading glasses. And the cow is a book.

Then imagine the sound of one hand clapping in a forest where a tree falls silently. And when it lands, it says, “Read any good books lately?”

Only then can you wrap your mind around the shame I feel in a family full of voracious readers when I cannot read fast enough.

My maternal grandmother was legendary for the breadth and width of her literary taste. When I told my grandparents I was doing research on newspaper coverage of the Titanic, she handed me the 1912 edition of The Story of the Wreck of the Titanic. You know, just a little something she had lying around along with the biography of the Red Baron and paperback romances circa 1978.

Her daughters inherited the trait and they in turn passed it on to their offspring. Some of us have been late-bloomers, disliking reading for classes but developing an appetite when it was no longer mandatory.

And then there’s me.

I used to read as if words were keeping me alive. Our school librarian – Mrs. Baumann – gave me permission to read anything I wanted. Oh, the freedom to read over my grade level! But over the years, I got in a groove. When I worked at a publishing company, I read three or four books a week outside the book club at work.

But when I changed jobs, I lost the touch. I thought that because my job involves a lot of reading (not even counting all the trade articles and the e-mailed links), I had less time.

But my colleagues seemed to have boundless energy for reading, as well as being able to watch two or three series on TV.

I’d walk into lunch and say, “I read Gene Wolf’s Peace over the weekend and my head only exploded twice.”

Then a colleague would say, “Oh, have you read The Life of Pi? It’s really good.”

And another would pipe up, “Oh, yes! I read that last night, after finishing Gone Girl. I’m halfway through A Thousand Splendid Suns now.”

“Oh, Khaled Hosseini is really good. I’m re-reading The Fault in Our Stars while I wait for my sister to finish And the Mountains Echoed. I gave it to her yesterday, so she should be done with it tonight.”

Or words to that effect.

Then I would close my mouth but not speak to anyone in a hundred silent ways, to paraphrase (badly) Rumi. I was no longer well-read. I imagine it’s like finding out that you are no longer cool but are now more of a joke-of-coolness, like a hipster. (NOTE: I have never been cool, nor do I care since I found out that “cool” people were drinking bad beer on purpose.)

After work I’d go home to the stacks of books languishing here and there throughout La Casa de Tontería. Sometimes I’d check books out of the library, but mostly I returned them half-read because three weeks is plenty of time, and I feared that I might renew them too many times.

Then the Librarians might suspect.

Librarians already know too much. No use in making them suspicious, too. Not that I don’t read.

During my recent vacation, the youngest of my nieces and I visited my parents, and we dames had a fine time turning pages. (My poor father was annoyed because he wanted to talk politics and no one wanted to join him.)

My niece finished one book and started another. She was keeping pace with my mother, who plows through tome after tome between bouts of housekeeping and sleeping. Mom is a reading machine par excellence – which is French for “like a boss”.

“You read so fast!” my niece said.

However, Mom poo-poohed the compliment.

“Look at this,” she said, opening the James Patterson book to the first chapter. “Some of these chapters are only three pages long, and it’s not exactly small type.” It was true. There was a lot more white-space than any book I’d seen. “A lot of best-sellers are like this,” she said. “It makes for a quick read.”

WHAT?!?!

I started picking up some of the best-sellers that everyone was reading. This one? Less than 400 pages of text, and a hundred of those half-blank. That one? The opening paragraph is three sentences long – and that’s the longest paragraph in the chapter! The worst was one that I had sitting on the side-table, a hand-me-over from a media specialist AKA librarian: It’s marketed to adults, but the reading level hovers between fourth and fifth grades.

And here I was kicking myself because I haven’t finished The Solzhenitsyn Reader that’s been weighing down my bedside table, the bookmark a mere quarter of the way through the pages.

For years now I’ve been comparing apples to oranges, piranhas scarfing full cows to goldfish swallowing sprinkles. Well, no more! From here on out, I’m going attack those piles! I’m going to choose the Dick-and-Janiest first and whip through them.

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