You’ve heard of reading for pleasure but how about reading for pain? From the time I could read I’ve used books to escape from emotional pain. Let me be clear that I wasn’t escaping from anything more toxic than being a middle child in suburban America during the innocent early sixties.
My mother was a great reader and gave me her old Judy Bolton mysteries to read after I’d devoured the insipid Nancy Drews and cloying Cherry Ames stories. (I’ve often wondered about the psychological impact on female America from reading about those perfect girls. Not good I’m sure.) Anyway, Judy Bolton was complicated and smart and a little bitchy but in a good way. Setting aside that I couldn’t fathom anyone getting engaged at 16 (Judy and her friends did that a lot), I loved the mysteries because they were gritty and real and consuming.
I used to say that my mother never restricted my reading choices but now I think she was too busy raising and worrying about us kids to monitor what I was reading. Like reading “The Carpetbaggers” and “Valley of the Dolls” before I’d reached puberty. Confusing to say the least but the narratives were great. Aristotle said that plot is what compels us to read, although he said it more eloquently and in Greek. Humans need to know what happens next. It’s that simple and that complicated. It’s why the worst, most puerile made for TV movie will capture us as we scroll through the channels. It’s why Mike watched the entire, saccharine “Mistletoe Inn” Hallmark movie the other night while I frosted sugar cookies and swore. I had deliberately saved a mediocre and manipulative Christmas movie to play while wrapping presents and abusing baked goods. I can’t use a good movie, say “Love Actually” or “The Bishop’s Wife,” because I get pulled into the film. The same principle applies when I save a book by a favorite author for uninterrupted enjoyment or choose a book I can stop reading when I know I’ll be busy.
Of course reading has caused me pain as well.
Recently I sprained my good ankle. Long story about the bad ankle, but this was the good ankle. I did it walking down the single step in my ranch style home. I’ve always been clumsy and add to it I bruise easily. And I’m unlucky. It takes a certain talent to injure yourself when frosting sugar cookies. Who knew that red food coloring would stain my fingers so easily? Who knew that scrubbing those fingers would tear my skin? Now I know. I blame all of this on reading because I sprained my ankle and cut my finger while listening to audio books. David Sedaris has a lot to answer for. But I digress.
I’ve never been able to control my thoughts, which are scattered in a way that is hard to describe. For instance, right now as I write this I’m calculating my time and mentally reworking the long list of pre-Christmas errands and chores. I’m not using my injured right index finger and I’m elevating my right ankle. In a few minutes I’ll dress in jeans (with pockets) so I can listen to an audio book with my currently charging phone in my pocket. Sweats (my pajamas) have no pockets— a definite oversight of the manufacturers. I’ll plug in to a Jane Austen mystery, pack up cookies to deliver and not think about the things I don’t want to think about. See? Easy.
I won’t think about having a lot to do and not enough time. I won’t castigate myself for hurting my ankle and being so far behind on preparations for two consecutive dinner parties. I won’t fret about the weird mini seizure my beloved Fiona had a few weeks ago. I won’t feel guilty about not sending biscotti to various friends and family members. I’ll shove down the constant, inchoate fear about Mike and his health. Instead I’ll listen to a mystery read by a British narrator. Mysteries and British literature are my favorite and Jane Austen is my favorite writer (I’m not a crier but I wept when I was in Bath at the Jane Austen museum.) So this book, set in the early 1800s with Jane Austen as the main character is me pulling out the big guns. It takes this to quell my worries, shut down my mind for a few minutes, and get me through the Christmas season.
Why does everything seem worse this time of year? Is it because it’s the end of a year of natural and unnatural disasters that I hope never to repeat? Or maybe the overlay of memories of childhood anticipation and pure joy dull adult experience. Objectively I can say this has been a tough year: international threats and national scandals, a nightmare medical diagnosis for a relative, the death of a beloved student, infernos, wind, floods, and he who must not be named but always is. I grow weary of tweets and insincere outrage. So tired of thinking and worrying. So I read.
It’s my drug; I admit it. With the advent of electronic readers I am never without a fix. In line at the pharmacy? Listen again to ”Holiday on Ice”—hysterical. I don’t care if people eye me nervously when I laugh out loud at (apparently) nothing. On a boring freeway? “Britt Marie Was Here” makes those miles enjoyable. Waiting for the love of your life to return from another medical procedure? Well, it takes a really good writer for that: Elizabeth George, Ann Patchett or Ian McKuen.
Another benefit of this particular addiction is that reading in public discourages people from engaging you in conversation. If you listen to a book while simultaneously knitting or playing solitaire on your device, you can be almost completely impervious to the real world. I recommend it.