Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Meandering Book "Essay"

I have a picture on my desk that my grandma sent me. It’s an old Polaroid, the kind on thick, hard paper that took fifteen minutes to develop. It’s just me in the photo, sitting on Grandma’s scratchy greenish-tan sofa. I am about two, maybe three. I am so small my feet are very far from the edge of the seat. My white soled shoes are clean, not a sign of daintiness, but evidence that I did not wear shoes often. With the doctor’s approval I was allowed to run around barefoot, something I still prefer. Shoe shopping was, and is, a traumatic experience for me. My wide feet want freedom and comfort, not the pinched prison of shoes that never fit quite right. In the photo I am wearing shoes because I am at Grandma’s house. I am also wearing a brown jumper with a light brown shirt underneath. On my lap, filling it entirely, is a book. It appears that I either just finished looking at it or am about to read it backwards. I don’t remember learning how to read. In my mind it’s like a light switch, one moment I can’t read and the next moment I can. I know from having been told, that I could read in preschool. In kindergarten I remember reading the instructions on the worksheets without the teacher’s help. My sister could read before kindergarten as well. She and my mother and I went to a spring open house at my school when I was in first grade. At the end of the evening we visited by former kindergarten teacher. My sister would be starting with her in the fall. While my sister demonstrated her reading ability with Dick and Jane, I pouted in a corner. I read so much better but no one asked me for a demonstration. In my third grade class we were visited once a week by a sixth grade class. They were supposed to tutor us in reading. To the delight of my tutor, I read as well as he did. He must have bragged to his classmates because we were frequently engaged in reading competitions. The other tutors would bring over their challenges, “bet she can’t read this,” they’d say, handing over the book. “Bet she can,” my tutor would say with the utmost confidence. I never let him down. I had a library card as soon as I could write my name. My mother would take me every two weeks and I would check out as many books as I could carry. I loved the library. I loved being surrounded by all those books and their secrets. I loved the dry, musty smell. A library was a sacred place, more sacred than church. In the library you have to be quiet so your words do not interfere with the words of the books. In church you have to be quiet so God can talk to you. But I never heard God say anything while books never ceased their whispering. Relatives eventually caught on that I didn’t want dolls for my birthday, though a fancy Barbie ensemble was acceptable. Santa figured it out too. When I was a teenager and gifts became cash, I’d spend it all at the bookstore. This distressed my mother who thought there must be something wrong with me. She encouraged me to try and be more like other teenagers and spend my money on new clothes of which I had plenty. She even went so far as to suggest I buy shoes. These days when she sends me a check for my birthday, she writes in the card, “Don’t spend it all on books!” To make her happy I will buy something cheap from Target before I head to the bookstore. There was a time when I could count on one hand the number of books on my shelves that I had not read. But since I met my husband who is also a reader--I like to joke I married him for his books--the number of unread books has grown. There is not a room in the house that doesn’t have books. We even have our own library. By choice we have no children and what might have been a family room is wall-to-wall books. One would think that at some point I would reach some sort of book satiety. But with my husband managing one of those big chain bookstores everyone loves to hate and a planned trip to Hay-on-Wye Wales, also known as Book Town, in spring, I have not yet had my fill. The more books I have, the more books I want. They are my drug of choice, I am powerless in their presence. I can’t say no. I buy books with the intention of reading them, I do not collect them as objects. I know I will never read them all, but I don’t like to think about it. On the rare occasions when I do, I am filled with overwhelming despair. A black pit opens before me and I hear Death’s boney hands rubbing together in anticipation. Better not to think of that. Better to think instead about where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza will find themselves next. Or worry over the trials and travails of Clarissa Harlowe. Better to tune my ears to the whispering of my books.