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Read Me Halfway

The books have gotten out of hand. I don’t have room for an English sheepdog or a husband in my bed. There are too many books.

I don’t like sleeping with books. Their spines hurt my spine when I roll over on them. They make a loud thud falling out of bed when I shift the comforter. They poke me in the ribs with their corners. Their cold, shiny covers chill my skin.

I’ve got to do something about the books.

But really, where do you start?

Let’s begin by admitting that books are an addiction. No matter how many you have, you want more.

You’ll go any place to get one. Prices keep going up, but you pay them.

Or you find used books. You don’t know where that book has been. But you want it. Pretty soon you’re in bed with a dirty copy of Larousse’ Gastronomique, oversleeping your morning appointment because you were up all night reading about cheeses.

You share books. You “borrow” books from friends who forget they loaned them to you.

Magazines count, too. You skulk out of doctors’ offices, pretending you were carrying that copy of Vanity Fair when you arrived at the eye doctor’s.

You lose a sense of perspective. You go to the Schenectady County Public Library used book sale and you buy books in languages you don’t understand. Just in case.

You buy books on gardening, though you’re scared of worms. You buy a fourth copy of Dorothy Sayer’s Gaudy Night because you never know when you’ll want to give one away. Or simply stand in front of your bookshelves and gaze upon the redundancy of it all.

But the real issue isn’t books. It’s reading them.

That’s where I run into a glitch.

When I was a kid my mother used to tell me not to read so much. If she caught me reading Cherry Ames: Student Nurse or Trixie Belden and the Mystery at the Gatehouse with a flashlight under my covers, I knew I’d be in trouble. Fortunately I had a very small flashlight, and Johnny Carson always seemed to keep her happily distracted.

I don’t know why my mother worried about my reading habit. She had been a ballroom-dance teacher and round-dance caller at various times in her life. Maybe she thought reading would lead me into a sedentary lifestyle.

In a way, that’s the problem. It hasn’t.

When I was in graduate school and seminary, I simply could not believe all that we were expected to read. I figured my leg muscles would atrophy and my butt become bony from all those hours on the hard couches in the library (the better to keep you awake).

I had a professor who teased me because I kept telling him about all the books I’d read halfway through. He said this like it was a bad thing. But what was he thinking? Did he have no sense of his own mortality at all?

You know, we get to read a finite number of books in our lives. Why waste time finishing things?

I’m not even halfway through half the number of books stacked, Pisa-style, beside my bed. I don’t intend to finish them. I intend to sample them. There will not be a quiz.

Then there are those books you can’t put down, the books you finish, but wish lasted longer. It is true that I wish Tolstoy had made Anna Karenina a longer book. But once Anna was dead Tolstoy was only good for another couple of chapters. That’s all, folks.

Ian McEwan’s Saturday was an I-want-more book. I wanted Sunday. I wanted Monday.

There is also the great divide between Books You Want to Read and Books You Have to Read.

Sometimes Books You Have To Read often become books you’re glad you read. Once you get past the obligatory approach to reading them, you may find you enjoy them. I am trying to convince my daughters of this, but the required reading of Wuthering Heights and Ethan Frome has done a lot to convince them that I am lying.

What’s bad, though, is when a Book You Want to Read becomes a Book You Have to Read.

I can be perfectly excited about reading the new book by So-and-So. Then somebody says to me, “Oh, So-and-So’s new book is fabulous, lyrical, tender.” And somebody else says “So-and-So’s new book is just not up to the mark.” And a third person says, “So-and-So has a new book out. I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.”

All of a sudden So-and-So’s new book has become a Book I Have to Read. And naturally, it’s the last book I want to read.

I prefer reading as a subversive act. I still relish the pleasure I got from reading Peyton Place in eighth-grade study hall. It looked like I was meditating on quadratic equations. But in fact, tucked between the hard covers of my math textbook, Rodney Harrington and that slut Betty were doing things they never tell you about in health class.

It’s sort of the opposite of that now. Last night, I read War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning during the commercial breaks in the season finale of Desperate Housewives—my protest against target marketing. When the commercials were over, my daughter, Linnea, would say in a loud voice “It’s back on, Mom!” and I would look up from the destruction in Serbia to re-join Bree and Lynette and Gabrielle.

Actually, it was a little schizoid.


“Generally, I try to judge a book by its cover,” my daughter’s friend, Kyle, said, standing in front of our bookshelves trying to pick out some summer reading.

Naturally I chastised him severely and informed him of the importance of reading.

“Reading is fun-damental,” I said, “Get it?”

But basically, I think he’s onto something.

Maybe if you just surround yourself with books, the text between the covers sort of seeps, unread, into your consciousness through a kind of cosmic osmosis.

Which gives me one more reason to stop reading and go to the bookstore.

—Jo Page

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