When I go to literary festivals, readings and bookstores, I see a lot of people like me. We recognize something in one another, recognize our own kind.
What gives us away? I don’t know. The hunched shoulders, maybe. The newspapers and books we seem to always haul around with us just in case. The squint. The overly intent interest in this book, that book, wasn’t it wonderful, too bad it was a disappointment, can’t wait to see what he or she writes next.
Anyway, at some point it all adds up. I realize I’m around kindred souls who spent their childhood summers in the cool, mildew-scented stacks of the public libraries the same way I did, feeling at home there in a way they never felt at home in their own houses. They checked out armfuls of books. They sprawled on couches and beds reading one book after another and the rest of the world fell away. (If you grew up, as I did, in the barren reaches of West Texas, the world’s falling away was pretty damned desirable.)
Year after year, my family traveled only to Oklahoma, crossing the muddy Red River. But, in my head, I leaped over centuries and continents. I was titled royalty, I was Scarlett O’Hara, I was beautiful, glamorous, adventurous and resourceful — just about everything, in fact, I wasn’t in my real life.
“I am the kind of person things happen to,” my only exciting friend in high school told me once, explaining how she had flung herself on the bed in her room, landing hair-first in a puddle of cat vomit. I was dazzled. Unlike my friend, I was the kind of person nothing ever happened to; my family didn’t even own a cat.
“Where are you from?” I’ll ask new acquaintances — and there’s a particular facial expression people get before they tell you they’re an Army brat. In other words, they grew up everywhere, they grew up nowhere, and the question is really pretty simpleminded. The questioner has already missed the point and will continue to miss it, so why bother to answer?
Sometimes, I feel the same way about my own background. I grew up rooted in a sturdy, plain, orderly world of lunch pails and Sunday school and small ranch houses. You weren’t supposed to hope for much in that world, since it would only lead to disappointment, and you weren’t supposed to want for more, since that meant you thought you were too good for your circumstances. If it sounds a little grim, it was.
But, you know, somebody slipped up and gave me the entree to a bigger world when I started to read and never learned to stop. That’s what I see in myself and other unreformed book lovers — a kind of dual citizenship in the world, here, but not here, forever itching to go somewhere else again.
I would say I’ve outgrown it, but I haven’t. Over the past several days, I’ve found myself watching a black man take the oath of the U.S. presidency for the second time, and, in the evenings, finishing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful Team of Rivals about Lincoln’s genius and presidency.
Once again, I’ve fallen in love with Lincoln and both his goodness and greatness. Don’t go to Ford’s Theater, dammit, I silently scream. Stay home, instead.
I keep turning the pages and the inevitable tragedy happens. It’s still ridiculously heartbreaking — but I also know that, almost 150 years later, something good will come of it.
When you’re a reader, you see, you learn to take the long view.
(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)