Lost in the Pages

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)

Read here about how the little match girl changed my life and the day I got called a sweet little Texas housewife





19 comments… add one
  • one of my greatest joys of early retirement is the chance to read, read, read. I’ve usually got 3 books going at a time: I might as well move in to the local library. I got no money, got no home, but the library I call my own, I got the sun in the morning and the moon at night. And always a book in hand.

  • That’s such a beautiful post. There are readers, and non-readers. I grew up, like you did, escaping into books and traveling, learning, unfolding…all through books. I read crime novels and romance novels and young adult books and all sosrts of wonderful things, and they all inform my life to this day, in their own ways. I would give a lot for the time to be able to read with such abandon now…but I still will take it whenever I can get it. 🙂

  • I was an only child living in a rural area. I ended up going to a school I didn’t live in the district for, so my friends from school weren’t nearby. I did nothing but read. We had a contest in 6th grade. Every time you read a book you got to add a body section to your “bookworm” on the wall. Mine went all the way around the classroom. I still am caught up in books. And there’s nothing worse than a bad book, especially one you waited for!

  • My mother had a deep love for reading and instilled that love for books and reading in me as well. I feel sorry for the younger generations, many of which don’t know how to travel through time and space in a good book.

  • Cindy A Link

    I agree, Ruth. It was great as a child to sit in West Texas and be able to escape to alternate universes where people and their thoughts were softer around the edges.

  • Beautifully written story. Undoubtedly, your writing has benefitted from your reading~

  • I’m a preacher’s kid who gets that same look on my face when people ask me where I’m from. Moving around as we did, my books were my only constant companions.

  • Some of my fondest childhood memories consist of golden, lost hours spent in libraries.

  • It is interesting the various things that bind people together, books being one of them. Loved your writing. This graph is beautiful: ” 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.”

  • So introspective and so identifiable. I read and my adult children read, but so far my 14-year-old grandson does not. I wonder if that’s what so much screen time has down to our youth.

  • You have expressed that wonderful escape of reading that keeps so many of us living in our heads. When I was in high school, I read while I was washing dishes by propping the book behind the faucet. I read when I was ironing, by opening the book at the end of the ironing board. I read so much and so long that my mother took me to the doctor to see if I was depressed. I was only depressed when I went to my first big city library when I was about 9 and realized I’d never be able to read all those books.
    So I started a website devoted mostly to book reviews. And I hired myself to read books and write about them. So there!

  • Cindy D. Link

    I second what Alisa said. That paragraph is bone deep beautiful and encapsulates so much of my childhood. I’m still paying the price for wanting more through estrangement from what little family I have left. But, as long as I have eyes to read or ears to listen to books on tape, I’m good to go. You totally rock.

  • I was a reader too as a child. But not as much as my 11-year-old. She would spend every second of every day reading if she could. So, Heather, some teens are growing up with as much love of books, despite the screens…

  • My favorite line: “a kind of dual citizenship in the world, here, but not here, forever itching to go somewhere else again.” I don’t read as many books as I used to but every July I take a two-day sabbatical from life to read a favorite book. My whole family knows it’s a do-not-disturb time. Books can take you to a different place in a way movies, TV, just can’t. Thanks for this post.

  • Yes. The squint. The world falling away. The older I get, the more pronounced the first, the harder to achieve the second.

  • Beautiful, Ruth. It’s hard for me to understand someone who says, “I don’t read.” That, to me, is like saying, “I don’t breathe.”

  • I dropped my daughter at orchestra practice last night and went to the library to work on my laptop. Happened to pass by a copy of All Creatures Great and Small, and instead spent the next hour and a half reading the first 8 chapters. It was like seeing an old friend again.

  • Suzanne Link

    As a reader, one of my greatest joys is seeing one of my four grandchildren with a book (the youngest is only 3 months old, but we will shower her with books!) My two daughters learned quite early that I would often refuse to buy a toy but seldom turned down a request for a book.

    Often, I go through the day waiting for my time to read, and no matter how late, I always read a bit before I go to sleep.

  • Oh, what you said about Lincoln reminded me of reading one of the sequels to the Laura Ingalls Wilder series years ago. I read it aloud to my boys and even though I *knew that Pa was dead – for heaven’s sake, 150 years have passed – when I read about him dying in the story I cried and cried. I was crushed that this man who’d been such a part of my growing up and my kids’ growing up (not to mention *Laura’s growing up) had died right before my very eyes.

    I love books.

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