Painting: Girl Reading by Alfred Émile Stevens
“Don’t date a girl who reads because girls who read are the storytellers. You with the Joyce, you with the Nabokov, you with the Woolf. You there in the library, on the platform of the metro, you in the corner of the café, you in the window of your room. You, who make my life so god damned difficult. The girl who reads has spun out the account of her life and it is bursting with meaning. She insists that her narratives are rich, her supporting cast colorful, and her typeface bold. You, the girl who reads, make me want to be everything that I am not. But I am weak and I will fail you, because you have dreamed, properly, of someone who is better than I am. You will not accept the life that I told of at the beginning of this piece. You will accept nothing less than passion, and perfection, and a life worthy of being storied. So out with you, girl who reads. Take the next southbound train and take your Hemingway with you. I hate you. I really, really, really hate you.” ~ Charles Warnke
Happily for me, my husband never entertained such thoughts. Calm, confident and logical, he saw his opposite and pursued me without fear of “someone better” lurking in my imagination. He hadn’t been warned to beware girls who read too much and form too many ideas. I’d been warned never even to date a Catholic, but Tim was the best catch in all the seas I’d ever sailed, and if he didn’t wiggle free of my grasp, I wasn’t about to let him go.
My childhood was spent in an armchair, devouring books. The more I escaped into someone else’s adventures in places I’d never seen, the more my own world blurred around me. I tuned it out. Unlike Isabel Archer, I was not a girl “upon whom nothing is lost.” I failed to notice or even care about most of what happened around me. Then again, not much happened on the farm except for the weather, commotion and noise from my four sisters, setting the table for dinner and supper, that sort of thing. Then again… a lot happened, and I missed it, “scatter brained,” inattentive, daydreaming fool that I was. Boys shunned me. I wrote little cartoon romances, which an older sister mocked and tore into shreds. She found my diary and read it aloud, so I burned it.
Mom was overwhelmed with five girls born in six years, so it was easy for me to hide out with fairy tales, Zane Grey, Volume A of the encyclopedia (it was free at the grocery store as a bribe to buy the rest of the set, which Mom didn’t), and the Red Cross First Aid manual from Dad’s Army days. I spent countless hours staring at line drawings of how to treat a snakebite, set a tourniquet or apply butter (!) to a burn. No wonder I wanted to be a nurse, doctor, coroner, something, anything medical. But in school, I dreamed through first-grade math, got spanked for it, and never did quite get the hang of numbers and those pesky equations. I read science textbooks cover to cover at the start of every school year. Back then, science was a lot easier than what my high school children faced. The genome hadn’t even been cracked. I read whatever I could find, even Shakespeare from the library the summer I was 16, and Carl Sagan’s “Dragons of Eden,” which echoed all those heretical questions I’d entertained since I was old enough to ask questions the way pesky toddlers will. What a friend I had in Carl! I told no one, of course. At church we sang “What a friend we have in Jesus,” but Carl and his love of the cosmos seemed more real. He even had pictures, and fossil records. Hubble images of stellar nurseries (photos – of distant stars being born!) filled me with greater wonder and awe than tales of a babe in a manger.
I read and read, struggled to achieve a C in Algebra, started to flunk high school physics, graduated half a year early from high school and passed the nursing school test with flying colors, but Dad told me I was a malpractice suit just waiting to happen, so I decided to get a degree in the one thing I knew best: reading. Writing. Eventually, with a B.A. in English teaching and a journalism minor, I graduated and was hired at a bomb factory as a technical writer. The factory no longer exists, but not because of me. I did make a careless error here and there, but not bad enough to shut a place down or cause it to blow up. Chamberlain Manufacturing died of natural causes.
After twenty-five years and three kids, Tim is still patient with me and all my careless mistakes and those pesky questions that even the wisest of priests cannot answer. He’s the anchor in the choppy waters of my mental horizon. The world may never know if I was a good wife and mother, or could have been a good nurse, or will ever be a great writer. Even as a reader, I’m humbled by the erudition of others.
But it isn’t a contest. I read because I love books. Excuse me now, I must go start another one. Rod Usher’s “Poor Man’s Wealth” arrived in this week’s mail.
Happy trails, fellow bookworms!