I have wondered more than once whether, if a bank teller drew on my hands with one of those counterfeit bill detector markers and forced them under the light for examination, I’d have tells like those of a fake twenty.
The word fraudcrosses my mind sometimes as I work stage right and stage left in the classroom talking big about reading and how the best way to become a good writer is to read lots and often.
It crosses my mind as students will ask, as they often do, whether I’ve read fill in the blank off the bestseller list, and I say something about not preferring contemporary lit or something about having been too busy with student essays. A good mood will get you a “That sounds great! I’ll put it on my list for between semesters,” and that may, now that I think about it, register as the emptiest promise I make, very nearly a borderline lie. I just don’t have the heart to break yours.
I cannot tell you the jaws I’ve dropped because I haven’t read any Stephanie Meyer, have gotten only halfway through the first book in The Hunger Games series, and finished exactly one Nicholas Sparks book before throwing it as hard as I could across the room. It was The Notebook, and I’m still not sorry.
I manage still, believe it or not, to classify myself as a literate person despite this. I have read books before. Yes, complete books, start to finish. I have marked them up. I have passed them along. I have bought multiple copies because I wasn’t sure (multiple times) whether I still had my own. To illustrate, note that I can locate four copies of Eat, Pray, Love by moving my head left to right without even trying hard to spot them, and Liz Gilbert, although she is grand, is not counted among my favorites. Let’s just say I felt convicted while watching Mel Gibson’s character in Conspiracy Theory as he compulsively bought copies of The Catcher in the Rye although he’d never read it.
What gets me is when people ask what I’m reading these days. I want to make something up. I do. I want to say I’ve just read Salman Rushdie’s latest and tell them an anecdote from a Sherman Alexie book. I want to go all gaga about Anne Lamott’s newest one, which I know I’ll love if I ever have a moment to myself. I want more on my tongue and my mind than article snippets about the demise of public schools and higher ed and Julianna Baggott’s brilliant Facebook status updates I peruse while rocking the smallest lovenugget in the house—or maybe her and her brother at the same time if he’s jealous or recovering from a tantrum.
People see me in Barnes and Noble wearing a baby, carrying another nearly upside down under my armpit, juggling a stack of books, and calling the first child to come along with her own tallish stack. They probably think I read. I’m sure the family friend who brings our Amazon Prime packages with super-rushed delivery because I need those unread books now believes I read, too, and read fast because she’ll be back tomorrow as well. My homeschooling friends I bump into at the public library during weekday story hours probably think I read. I’m in all the right places that one should be if one were to read someday.
Even online I look like a reader. Every social media photograph has a mess of books behind a baby. These pictures aren’t strategically taken; it’s just that the books are everywhere, much like the laundry, so it is rather impossible to take a baby picture without White Noise, White Teeth, or White Oleander in the background. I’ve given up trying to be private about what we’re reading (or planning on reading) nearly as much as I’ve given up trying to hide my son’s Toy Story underwear.
I want to tell them that this literature professor is reading. The truth is I’m not—not entire books, not in long sittings, not for pleasure. And what does that even mean to someone in my season of life? Reading for pleasure. As opposed to what? Reading for torture? Reading for edification? Reading, to me, means your eyes are awake enough to be open and your situation is relaxed enough where your eyes aren’t already committed to watching someone jump off a couch arm or scale a stove.
Reading means you must be holding a book, which means you haven’t lost complete feeling in the arm that’s holding the baby you cannot put down because she has a runny nose and can’t breathe while lying horizontally. Reading means there must be clean forks in the drawer and cups in the cabinet. It means the dog isn’t whining to be let out or let in. It means you’re not hungry, you’re not cold, and you don’t have to pee or work or yell at someone to do either of these things.
You cannot read for pleasure when the act itself is pleasure. To correct the redundancy, I would say it’s just reading, but I cannot leave that alone on the page. Nothing is just reading, and if it is, you’re doing it wrong.
After a full day in the kitchen trying to bake, puree, and freeze some semblance of stay-at-home motherhood while I am not Dr. Price for a few more days until the semester starts, I crawled under the covers, ignoring the piles of work on the floor, a veritable obstacle course of envelopes, grade sheets, receipts, binders, and oversized books that don’t fit onto shelves. I broke the spine of Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and read fifty pages, my eyes not yet burning from the day, the kitchen cleaned and hallway cleared of Lego traps, tiny plastic horses, and things with wheels, and all the Price babies in bed. And words of comfort I’ve offered to students over the past eleven years circled back around and came to me this time.
This is what we do when everything is fine.
I’ve said that line to students going through divorces, hospitalizations, miscarriages, deaths in the family, job losses and changes—the things that wear us into different people, that make us want to mess with time, to speed it up or slow it down, and make us want to mess with space, to get more of it or less of it—to be at any other pace or place than that which we are.
This is what we do when everything is fine.
I say this to illuminate the comparative lightness of academics when looked at alongside the stuff of life. They hear me preaching, preaching, preaching about syntax and style. They hear plagiarism warnings that conjure eschatological imagery. It matters, but it doesn’t matter. “There is no such thing as an English emergency,” I tell them.
This is what we do when everything is fine.
I spent the better part of thirty years reading what others gave to me, bought for me, or assigned to me. I recall a small window in my late teens where I camped out on bookstore floors and stayed out late in coffee shops reading everything in sight. I recall switching books with my best friend Kim, having marked up key passages we loved with circles and stars everywhere, playing poems on repeat in the car from Fort Walton Beach to Pensacola to memorize tracks on audiobooks. I remember moments of resurgence between semesters in grad school #1 and grad school #2 after my daughter had entered school where reading happened.
Good reading like that doesn’t happen often anymore. I used to have a series of lengthy, monogamous and semi-monogamous relationships with authors. Whitman was mine all of from 1996-1998. I rebounded with Bukowski all of 1999, then Anne Sexton moved in and brought all her friends. They camped out until…hmm. Okay, so maybe they’re still here, hiding in the walls and under the floorboards.
Now my desk, bedside table, and the backseat of my car are overflowing with student work and lit anthologies. I pick up the same toys twelve times a day, probably more, and put them with the Where’s Waldo? and I Spy books we use as a hard surface for coloring and Play-Doh molds. I reach blindly into backseats to toss my son a book from the floorboard because he sees my older daughter reading. Half the time, I don’t know what I’ve thrown him. It’s entirely possible that he’s held David Sedaris, The Vagina Monologues, or a Chuck Palahniuk. I’m not even supposed to text and drive; how on earth can I be responsible for monitoring a miniature book club in the backseat during the ballet carpool?
And a breath here.
As I ended the day with a book in my hands and quiet in the space between me and midnight, the most beautiful thought occurred to hint that I might be emerging from the dark tunnel to at least a sliver of light on the other side.
How am I doing this? How is it possible that I am in a room alone, holding my own book in my hands, with no one sitting on either of my legs? I am reading this sentence, and I can hear myself in my own head.
There is only one way I could be doing this. I know exactly what this means.
Everything is fine.