Saturday, January 27, 2007

Obsession (A Mostly Non-Food Entry)

Ever since I was a small child, I've found myself obsessed with the printed word. I'll read just about anything. Of course, I have my preferences, but when the chips are down and there's nothing around that I want to read, I'll read what I can get my hands on. I've read the user's manual for our car on many occasions when my husband has run into some store for "just a minute." I have to read.

There's a blog out there called Whatever, which is authored by the friend of a friend. In addition to being a blogger, the guy also writes science fiction books, so his blog is pretty well visited. Once in awhile he holds a sort of open forum, where he'll answer questions submitted by his blog readers. Someone once asked him about his early life, or something like that, and one of the things he mentioned was that he doesn't recall how or when he learned to read. It just seems, he said, as though he'd always known how. Me too.

My parents tell me I learned to read at age three, but I have no recollection of the process. I just remember sitting in the classroom of the Montessori school/daycare I attended as a small child with a Dick and Jane book reading aloud (to myself) "Dick likes sweats. Jane likes sweats. You like sweats." I should clarify that the book was not titled "Dick and Jane Go to the Gym"; it was just that I read the word "sweet" and pronounced it "sweat." (I said I learned to read at age three; I didn't say I learned to read well at age three.) In later years my Montessori school teachers were frustrated with me because I didn't want to do any of the other activities available to me; I just wanted to read.

I spent a lot of my childhood with a book. My mother didn't exactly hinder me--every Saturday we used to go to McDonald's for lunch and we'd each take a book to read. We'd sit there together, eating and reading. She had a policy that at the bookstore, I could buy as many books as I wanted. I recall staggering out of Crown Books under the weight of all the juvenile paperbacks I'd bought. Even now I complain about having been an only child, but I suppose those book buying free-for-alls were one of the advantages of being an only. Of course, if I'd had siblings, I might not have had to find companionship in books. I can remember sitting at the dinner table by myself, eating and reading a book. Even now I read while I eat if I'm alone. Sometimes I even like to eat alone, just so I can read.

In college I tried majoring in interior design and business at different times. After being completely disgusted by the vapid fixy girls that filled the interior design program, and flunking economics, I broke down and majored in English, as I should have all along. I stuck pretty close to the DWEMs and Classics (that's Dead White European Males, for those not familiar with the acronym). I was well served by this course of study--my DWEM-opposing husband took a Dickens class (doubtless under protest, or maybe because it was the only thing that fit into his schedule that semester) and that's where I met him.

Over the years I've found myself having to swerve to correct my course while driving, as my eyes are drawn to the wording painted on the side of a truck going the opposite direction on the highway. I hate bumper stickers, because I so long to read them, but I can't do so safely most of the time. I don't want to read them in the way most people do--to see what amusing or irritating sentiment someone has been dopey enough to slap on their vehicle--I long to read them so my eye can pore over the printed word. I am sometimes amused or irritated by bumper stickers (let's face it, generally the latter), but I don't read them for content.

I've spent one or two nights in hospital emergency rooms, and I have to give them the award for the environment most barren of reading material. There was one night I had been checked in, and was waiting for a room to be ready (it had to have been 11:30 at night before I finally got into a room--I couldn't figure out why the room was occupied until that time; who the hell leaves a hospital at 11:30 p.m.?) and was casting around for something to read.

Absolutely the only thing (after the labels on the packages of gauze) was a copy of People magazine. I read every article in it, and even started the crossword puzzle at the end. I couldn't finish it because I don't watch TV, so I didn't know a lot of the actors' names that were answers to the clues. It was clearly a puzzle for people of the intelligence level that you would expect to be reading such a fine, intellectual publication. I think one of the clues was actually a four letter word for "Accessory used to hold up pants." By the time I got done my IQ had dropped 20 points, and my brains were leaking out my ears.

I think this obsession with the printed word is one of the reasons I love grocery stores so much. I was thinking about this as I was picking up a couple of things the other day. The grocery store is just papered with things to read. Obviously there are all the labels on the products that scream for your attention. Even beyond that, though, is all sorts of wonderful printing to catch the eye. It doesn't matter if it's a food product or cleaning supplies, there's always plenty to read.

There's all that great marketing text on every item that tells you how superior the product is, gives the history of the company, talks about the purity of the ingredients, or describes the outstanding results that can be obtained using the product. There are instructions for use, nutritional information, government warnings, and sometimes recipes.

This isn't necessarily true of every store. Hardware stores and clothing stores, to offer two examples, are pretty deficient in the incidental things-to-read department. Hardware stores do have some good stuff--paint can labels and things like fertilizer and weed killer have fairly interesting text (all those instructions for use, and dire threats about the hazardousness of the fumes, and "keep out of reach of children" warnings accompanied by a skull and crossbones).

So often, however, they're lacking. Wrenches, for example, are purchased loose. They don't come in a blister pack with a cardboard backer that some marketing person looked at and thought "What an outstanding place to put some self-promoting drivel about our company!" This is true of many of the findings in hardware stores.

Clothing stores are really just hopeless. In clothing stores, once you get past the care instructions on the Orlon garment, you're pretty much done. Although I will read the fine print on their credit card offers in a pinch, it's mostly just boilerplate text, with the only variation being the APR. This may explain why I have literally hundreds of books, but very few store credit cards.

Fortunately my husband enjoys reading as much as I do. He reads different genres of books, and I've never caught him reading the recipe for Mock Apple Pie on the back of a box of Ritz crackers, but we do exchange magazines, and we both read select sections of the Sunday New York Times. Our evenings are often spent sitting on various comfortable chairs, reading different varieties of books, newspapers, or magazines.

I'm hoping my children will inherit our love of reading (although perhaps not to the same extreme--I'd hate to have one of my kids wreck a car just so they can read "East Side Plumbing Supplies" on the side of a truck). So far my older son loves being read to, and is now starting to like looking at books by himself, although he can't actually read yet. The twins like to look at books, but they seem to have an uncanny ability to hold them upside down, and shriek objection if you try to turn them right side up. I have high hopes for the baby, although she's just getting to the point where she can bat at a toy by herself, so actual recognition of letters may be a little way off.

A friend once asked me somewhat jokingly, prior to the birth of my first son, "What if he doesn't like to read much? Will you send him back?" (it's probably worth noting that this was a friend who didn't like to read all that much) and I said "No, of course not!" In reality I was thinking, "Yes, I will." I can't send them back where they came from, naturally, but I can't believe that children who have such easy access to all manner of books, who get books from their relatives for every gift-giving holiday and birthday, who see their parents reading as a form of relaxation, and who are surrounded by a family that contains avid readers, a used book collector, and a writer or two wouldn't come to like reading. They may not read road signs out loud on long car trips (as I used to do when my husband and I were first married, earning me the joking nickname of "Sign Girl"), but I'd like to think they'll always have an answer when someone asks "So, what are you reading these days?"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you'll be safe where your kids and readin are concerned. I look at you and I as examples. We're both always reading a book (thoughI dont read EVERYTHING like thinking about the stack of PRDs on my desk...ugh)and you and I both came from moms who liked to read and read to us.