So the word on the street is that the Prices are a little weird. Perhaps folks have always thought that about us—certainly, they’ve always thought it about me, and they should; I am a little weird. But when they started saying it about my family, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel.
I field a lot of questions from people about how I get my daughter to read as much as she does. She can inhale novels like my mother can inhale a box of hot Krispy Kreme donuts; both occur as if by magic, my Daina nearly wiping sloughed words like dry glaze from her lips when each jacketed cover closes.
I answer the questions that come although I’m not sure I should be credited as the reason. She was born reading the same way that my elementary school friend Octavia was born to run. I would invariably get a side cramp ten yards in, so sure I must be dying; meanwhile, she ran with a gait as wide as her height, nearly flying through the air and would lap everyone again just because she enjoyed the wind on her arms. This is Daina.
Once she got over the phonics hump of letter blends in kindergarten, she began lapping all of us, finishing her “required thirty minutes of reading” for all five days of the week by bedtime on Monday—and why they do this mandatory scheduled reading still baffles me. This is not how you teach someone to love. This is not how you get them to negotiate with the librarian to let them take “just one more” home. You’ll never catch them smuggling flashlights in their pillowcases by treating books this way. I digress, as I tend to do on this subject.
I answer the questions about her reading because I know how much joy, empathy, and character she gets from books, and if there is something to teach to this regard, I want them to have it. I want them desperately to have it like she has it.
But the conversation doesn’t always go well. You see, we have a mild book-hoarding situation in our house. Her closet is filled with paper-ream boxes packed with hand-me-down books for Atticus and Evangeline who will grow up in her good-enough library. Her rooms have utility shelves that are lined and piled with paperbacks, adorned with towering stacks of treasured hardcovers and box sets. She never leaves the house without at least three books, a book light, and a set of backup batteries, which she says are “in case of an emergency.” She reads in the car, under restaurant tables, in waiting rooms, and anytime her mind and her hands aren’t occupied otherwise.
Yet even from those who shove their children into books hoping that they fall in love despite the arranged marriage, I’ve been told “That’s not normal” when it comes to my daughter’s reading habits as though she’s gone off some deep end, expressing more concern for her being lost in Emma than the others who text their brains out from the earbud-wearing people they sit across from because, and I quote, “It’s just easier.”
Yes, we are the sort of family who runs out for books like others go for milk and bread. We’re also the sort of family who volleys jokes to one another in ordinary situations as though in lit culture code. Sometimes my jokes are just for me, and that’s okay. I’ve said “War Eagle,” “Roll Tide,” “Go Noles,” and “Go Gators” to end plenty of awkward football conversations I couldn’t follow. It may be okay if I, too, talk freely about the games I care about.
Some of these fans tear their clothes off and paint their bodies. I have never done either at the public library.* And you’re welcome for that.
I show my enthusiasm in other ways, ways like Daina does, noting book releases as though they were big game days and being loyal to a favorite writer and believing they’ll pull through this slump because you saw what they did last season and you know what they’re made of.
But someone recently called Jonathan and me the “educated ones,” and I’m not sure it was meant to be a compliment at the time. I might have even heard it as “freaks,” or worse than that, “you freaks.”
I understand more than I want to the cost and distance that accompany the decision to pursue higher education and lots of it. Degrees come prepackaged with assumptions other people will make about you because they believe those degrees come with assumptions you will make about them.
I know stories and have some of my own about family who encouraged college until they realized what it cost. And this cost has nothing to do with money. What the family wanted was the paper on the wall. They didn’t want the discomfort of awareness and the burden that comes with it, the responsibility to act on what you now know, to say uncomfortable things at the dinner table. It’s when they say “educated” but mean “uppity” and substitute generic “college boy” in place of your name that you know you can’t go back. College isn’t the only place this happens, but it’s the closest comparison I have to convey the cost of being bookish, the cost of being weird.
A short while after I finished my doctorate and noticed that some people started treating me differently, and not in good ways, I had dreams where I would try to give it back. At the risk of sounding like a complete Princeton princess**, I’ll admit the moment is most aptly compared to Eddie Murphy’s scene in Coming to America when he says to the girl who does not want to marry a rich prince, “I renounce my throne!” because he wants to be with her more than he wants to be king. And it’s just not that simple. It’s nothing you should wish away, and it’s nothing you can wish away.
The trouble is that we cannot unknow a thing, and a degree is supposed to be an outward sign that you know some things. But once we hear those things and they stick, they are ours. The whole thing has to fade and wear off, fleck by fleck, like a cheap and temporary tattoo, and some just won’t wear.
So, too, is the love of books. This love becomes an imprint, an identity. It’s the mark of the weird. And books didn’t make us this way. We were weird before they got here.
And maybe that identity is the cost of it all, the necessary othering from those who don’t buy into the hype that books make you better.
And they don’t make you better than anyone, but they do make you feel better—I know they make us Prices feel better—especially when it comes to being weird.
*I would tailgate at a library if invited. Friends, make a note.
**I did not go to Princeton. I just liked the alliteration. I went to FSU. Go Noles.