Within the book and volume of thy brain

Okay…  busted! I thought books were my friends, and when I showed them off, it was because I was impressed with them. Proud of them -they were my adopted children, sort of. I would no more throw away a book than I would send a puppy back to the SPCA because it pee’d on my rug.

But it turns out there are some who have besmirched the reputation of those of us who have actually read the books with which we decorate our walls; some who criticize us for confining our Reader’s Digest books to the lavatory as if we were ashamed of them; and some who feel that an open book should never be left where it could be seen and maybe examined in case company arrives. I suppose it seems pretentious, but more, it suggests the book in question is actually in use -in other words, it risks questions about the content…

The concern about ostentation and books is historically well-founded, apparently. I discovered this in an essay by Frank Furedi, a former professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury: https://aeon.co/essays/are-book-collectors-real-readers-or-just-cultural-snobs

‘Since the invention of the cuneiform system of writing in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE and of hieroglyphics in Egypt around 3150 BCE, the serious reader of texts has enjoyed cultural acclamation… Since text possesses so much symbolic significance, how people read and what they read is widely perceived as an important feature of their identity. Reading has always been a marker of character, which is why people throughout history have invested considerable cultural and emotional resources in cultivating identities as lovers of books.’

But, in time, it became an affectation, and overdone. ‘The symbol of reading was, perhaps, bigger than the act of reading itself. Individuals sought to capture their devotion to books through painted portraits that depicted them deeply absorbed in reading a text.’ Holding a book -especially if the title were recognizable, suggested the status and culture of the people portrayed -a comment as much about what he (they were mostly men) was reading, as who he was.

For some reason, it reminded me of my first date -I was in grade 8, I think. I was supposed to take Margaret Simpson to a dance at the school gym but I was pretty nervous -partially because I’d never danced, and also because she was quite a bit taller than me. At the time, I’d had no idea why she’d accepted my hesitant request -or why I’d even asked her, for that matter.

Anyway, when I arrived at her house, her mother answered the door, looked me up and down before she let me in, and then said Margaret was not quite ready. She didn’t ask me any questions, which surprised me, but left me on a couch in the living room to wait. There, plain as pastry on the coffee table, was an opened book. I don’t know who had been reading it, but I was curious to find out what kind of people lived here -what did the Simpson household read in their spare time?

Every so often I caught a glimpse of the mother peeking at me from the kitchen -I suppose she just wanted to make sure I was the kind of boy she and her daughter could trust not to steal things in a living room.

I resisted checking out the book for a few minutes, thinking Margaret would come waltzing down the steps any moment and catch me in flagrante delicto, but as the minutes ground on, I decided it might be worth the risk; I turned it over. It was a hard cover edition of the Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers –oddly similar to the one my mother had slipped under the Reader’s Digests in the bathroom for me to find a couple of days before -although ours was the non-coffee table version; Margaret’s was showy and flamboyant. It was royalty.

I thumbed through it nervously to fill the time, her mother trying all the while not to stare at me, and then I placed it back, upside down, as I’d found it. Suddenly, as if on a signal, Margaret came clomping down the stairs in high heels and with her hair piled on the top of her head like a haystack.

She smiled, stared at the book, and then blushed. Strangely enough, her mother had disappeared from the kitchen.

“It’s okay,” I said, returning the blush. “My mother put one of these in our bathroom.’

At any rate, for some reason I was reminded of the memory as I continued reading Furedi’s article. ‘With the 18th-century expansion of reading among the populace, the intelligentsia went out of its way to reinforce its superior status by emphasising the distinction between itself and lesser readers… By the 20th century, reading had been elevated into an art form, with intellectuals drawing a line in the sand. On one side was the so-called pretend reader and on the other – the elite.’ I’m pretty sure I know on which side Margaret’s mother thought I belonged; our identity is closely linked to what we read.

Still, there’s something magical about a book -any book- something more than merely the sum of its parts -more than its weight, its size, the number of pages, or its colour; more than its smell or the feeling of the paper in its pages; more, even, than what it says. A book is printed synergy. For me, opening a book was like opening a door and walking through it into a different world.

Books were my friends, my tour guides, my advisors. A book didn’t care if I wore glasses, or had curly hair and braces on my teeth; it didn’t matter a whit that I always got chosen last -if at all- for pick-up games after school. For a time, at least, I was the character about whom I was reading. I walked in his shoes, wore his clothes, and thought the same way; his successes were mine, and I endured his failures with a heavy heart.

I can only assume that Margaret endured me with a lighter heart that evening, however. I suspect I was just an excuse for her to go to the dance because she disappeared in the dim light of the gymnasium as soon as we got there. The last I saw of her was while she was dancing with some older, taller guy from grade 9.

I’m not sure if he had to read the same book, though.

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