Saturday, February 5, 2011

And if You Aren't a Reader

I have a confession … a secret ... buried bones in the garden. Some unlucky soul stuck a spade in the ground hoping for a potato, but got Mr. Potato Head instead. It’s bone on bone in the family closet and I have to tell. It has to come out. It’s not what’s behind the green door. There is not incest in the family, at least to my knowledge. I am who I say I am and am not in a witness protection program. My secret … I am a horrible reader. I do not blame my teachers. In fact, I managed to maneuver myself into easier classes in high school. We did tracking back in those days. I hid behind a bush. Today, the fact is that I am a poor reader and yes, it does bother me.

When you are a poor reader, you mask and cope. Here is the best way to accomplish that … don’t read. It was my way. I became a teacher (purely by accident and circumstance). My conscience got the best of me. How can someone be a teacher and not read. To do so seems to me to be a betrayal. I felt like a liar when I encouraged the students to read. I decided that I had to do something about it. So, for me, reading became a task! A chore!

Okay, I would make myself read. But, there were rules. I refused to read fiction. If I had to read, then it must be to “gain knowledge”. I made that one up myself and for about three years that is what I did. I actually read (and highlighted) computer instructional manuals. Geek, geek, geek. I read about the Dead Sea Scrolls. Nerd, nerd, nerd. I read the Bible. (Back then, I did not consider it to be fiction.) I do not believe that I gained much in the way of usable knowledge. Any gain was not visible to those around. Worse yet, there was no pleasure in reading.

One day while in Burlington, I wandered into a bookstore and struck up a conversation with an employee there. I explained that I only read non-fiction, but that I was totally bored with the materials that I was reading. I hinted that I might give fiction a try, but it had to be “out there” to capture my attention. Thus began a wonderful relationship with that bookstore. Their first recommendation was “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn. It was about a traveling geek show. I was told that if I could get past the story line it was a great read for character development and relationships. I was hooked. I went on to read a variety of fiction recommended by the staff, focusing mostly on female authors. I continued to dabble with non-fiction as well. On two occasions, I went to the staff there with the question “How can I decide how I feel about a situation when I really don’t know anything about it? Recommendations for specific selections as well as anthologies for the topics of the feminist movement and homosexuality soon followed. Best of all, I was reading all the time. I was never without a book close by.

Things happen. For some reason, I drifted away from my newfound habit of reading. Maybe, I just didn’t find the right book. No excuse. It bugs me to think that I am not a reader. Reading and intelligence are Siamese twins. I think that is what scares me. I may have been separated at birth. Self-inflicted ignorance is not acceptable. People know … and they reference great literature to test you. Call me Ishmael.

With Anne’s help, a strategy emerged. She found lists for me of the 100 greatest works of literature. She even bought me the first book to read … Brothers Karamazov. One look at the book and I knew it would be the last book I would ever read. It was the size of a cinderblock and would take me a lifetime to complete. Although I soon gave up on it, I did not abandon the idea. Instead, I switched to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. It puzzles me why the great writers cannot get it said in a shorter book and why they are all so tragic. Much of what I am trying to read is tedious … at least for me. To cope, I have developed a strategy of reading up to three books at a time so I can continuously switch gears. At one point, I was fighting the Trojan War with the Iliad while visiting the deeps of hell with Dante’s Inferno, and lightening up things in between with Alice in Wonderland. From there, I tried dealing with racism as portrayed in Faulkner’s Absalom , Absalom, ventured into Joyce’s Ulysses , mistakenly thinking it would be about Greece, and for a lighter diet chose a study of a trash dump in Maine by an artist/author named Rosamond Purcell.

In some ways, it all seems schizophrenic. But, who knows, maybe I am hearing voices … maybe the voices I hear are really the great writer’s of the world speaking to me through their books.

And maybe I am freaking insane …