To be frank — and why not? — like the anxiety dreams that persist decades after my last hour in a college classroom, this week, I haven’t done the reading.
I’ve read many things. On the page, on the screen of my new e-reader — a Kobo, because fuck you Jeff Bezos — and while I bought it for its kindness to new areas of darkness in my eyes, it’s now closer and more consistently to hand than even my iPhone.
(Than even my iPhone! Because like all of us, or almost, my very clever phone now fills the interstices of my life, even, to the despair of the SRoB team, to the point of responding to editorial queries while stopped in traffic.)
This is how I read when I was a child. In any moment that the world didn’t absolutely demand my attention, I was in a book. On the schoolbus; under the desk in classrooms; under the blankets at night. Common. But: While walking from one room to another. Between songs in band. Between sentences in conversation.
(Most of my childhood discipline was meant to pull me back to the world beyond the page. So, what the iPhone has done — in my case — is not invade spaces where “real life” used to be, but overturn years of my mother’s careful training, years of learning to bounce the ball back, to pay attention to the people around me, to mirror them and how they move with the world.)
I am home for Christmas, and my grandmother, who is 95, is experiencing a slow loss of mind that’s peeling away the understanding we’ve had of her for decades. In its place, a woman who cared terribly for her family and showed them that by surviving.
Which led to my mother asking her children what it was like to return to a house that you’d grown up in, since she had many, and I and my brothers at most swapped bedrooms for variety.
Which led to asking myself what it is like, since I have never thought of it as returning to a house, but only as returning home.
And answering: a house of stories and the physical memory of the books that held them.
(Something my e-reader, whatever joy it gives me, can never duplicate.)
This is the house where my father read Jack London’s Call of the Wild — a big, red book without a dust jacket, at an age where I was young enough to be read to but already beginning to correct the errors iI saw over his shoulder. It’s the house of memorizing the wolf song from The Jungle Book and playing at a braver kind of loneliness in the woods in the backyard.
This is the house of The Hobbit; you already know which mass market paperback I’m talking about. It’s the house of reading the same mass market editions of The Lord of the Rings long before I could understand more than the terror of the Black Riders and the glory of the elves.
It’s the house of water-crumpled copies of endless Heinlein and Bradbury, of McIntyre and McCaffrey, of Asprin and Anthony and Pratchett, because at a certain age, an endlessly refilled hot tub brought hours of comfort, and no hour could be spent without a book. There must, in retrospect, have been strict rules about library books in the bath. Or maybe I had better sense than I remember having.
It’s the house I came home to in college with immense copies of Hardy’s poems and slender ones of Bishop’s and Bogan’s. The latter, later, were stained with smoke and a memory of fire and panic, but I could never manage to trade them for fresher copies. I read Bishop even now, when it’s that copy, with the silence of my childhood home at midnight dampening the distractions of the world.
It’s the house I came back to in graduate school empty-handed, during a yearlong period when my mind devoured itself so unrelentingly that even reading was overwhelming.
(You may feel the sting of an hour’s separation from your smartphone. But losing the ability to connect with books is a death. A small one, but a real one.)
This morning, it’s the house where I sit in the daybed my mother made for me, which I look forward to finding at the end of every year, and write this before we go to visit my grandmother again. This year will be marked by the crispness of the ARCs I’ve brought, and the gentle resistance of the e-reader’s buttons.
There’s a bookcase across the room that’s waiting for me today as well. Last summer, my mother and I sat in a humid, dark attic, eyeing a dormant wasp’s next just in case, and went through box after box of books from my childhood and my brothers'. Whatever’s in that bookcase is what I chose, on that hard, hot day, to keep.
It’s not a large case, and the shelves are barely full. Of books, anyway. I expect I may find them full of other things.