Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Right Book at the Wrong Time: A Deviant History of Reading

I have never owned one of those decorative fabric bookcovers meant to hide trashy Harlequin romances, poolside. But still, whether I like it or not, the books I read say as much about my state of mind as a temporary tattoo.

Before I discovered the joys of sneaking out in the middle of the night, I broke bad by reading "Mad Magazine" under the covers with a flashlight long after Lights Out. My mother claims this is why I'm near-sighted now, but I don't care. It was worth it.

In elementary school I blew through a few books a week when I should have been learning something about sports. Or math. Or how to get along with The Republicans.

In high school my friends and I wrote the equivalent of 12 epistolary novels each semester. I read other books too, but literature during that time consisted of decoupaging the bloodied shards of my heart into a spiral bound notebook, passing it off to friends in the hall and then white-knuckling it through Chemistry to read their replies.

Although I took a heavy load of literature classes in college, I got the most pleasure from checking out unwieldy stacks of unassigned books and stashing them by my bed to read with a stolen bit of cheese and box o' wine. I was really pulling a fast one on my professors by sneaking Rilke, Hesse, Nabokov and Rimbaud while Tolstoy, Babel and Sophocles waited patiently for me on the sidelines.

During my 4th or 5th restaurant job after graduating, a waitress-colleague and I passed trashy dating advice books wrapped in brown paper bags back and forth to each other at the cash register- like they were pistols or a pound of weed! We could not risk letting our boyfriends (or the guys on the deck eating tuna melts) know what the hell made us so beguiling.

It seems that around the time of my wedding I was on a book starvation diet and that is why, irrationally, on my honeymoon, I took up basketweaving. A venture into crafts that I repeatedly forced into other venues: stained glass, crotchet, scrapbooking.... all with the same tragic end. Now I leave crafting to the crafty and keep my nose where it belongs, in a book.

I started reading again, in earnest, after I had my son. I read all of the ironic, literary parenting books I could get my hands on--Operating Instructions, Inconsolable: How I Threw My Mental Health Out With the Diapers, etc. They were my lifeline out of the diapers and the boppies.

And then, in the midst of learning how to live with a monkey on my back, I was asked to put together a few cogent thoughts about the books I was reading. Reconciling thinking and parenting was a challenge, and as I struggled not to lactate on the books that I inevitably rolled over in bed, the likes of Breath and Bones and Whores on the Hill breathed life back into my milk-addled brain. Thank God. Not thinking beyond the realm of the mall play area would have done me in.

Untrained as a journalist, but writing for a paper, I clung to certain memoirs by certain writers that schooled me more than any copy editing class at any community college. I laughed my ass off through Nerd Girl Rocks Paradise City: A True Story of Faking it in Hair Metal L.A. and But Enough About Me: A Jersey Girl's Unlikely Adventures Among the Absurdly Famous, praying to one day write my own journalistic tell-all. Or at least pass myself off as a journalist until things got good.

You know how you find some books and some books find you? I was working at a local children's hot spot when I called up my old editor from a locked bathroom stall to see if he might have any extra work lying around. He happened to mention "I Was a Teenage Dominatrix" and I haven't found myself mixing primary colors in an apron ever since.

Lately, Bad Valley has been choosing 9 out of 1o of the books by my bed. She never finishes the dull books and skips straight to the end of the good ones. Yes, my husband has mentioned that he preferred finding "Open: Love, Life & Sex in an Open Marriage" under my pillow on our 7th anniversary to "Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On" on the occasion of our 8th. But it's my job to read everything, right? Of course it is.

Still, I felt like I was sharing a secret with my librarian this spring when I checked out "Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity" alongside Clifford's Birthday Party and Shel Silverstein's "Falling Up."

Not that staying in bed for two and a half days straight to read "The Bell Jar" bodes that well either.

And, really, there's something not right about me reading "Hos, Hookers, Call Girls & Rent Boys: Professionals Writing on Life, Love, Money and Sex," right now in the midst of this economic turndown. Because it seems that writing about life pays a lot less than living it.

I know what Azar Nafisi, author of "Reading Lolita in Tehran," meant when I interviewed her on the phone: "Reading is the one place we can allow ourselves to be promiscuous." But in these desperate times writing about reading about being promiscuous seems a necessary measure, too.