Reading: A Catch-22 2015.08.12

Former Observer reporter Heather Walker is an English teacher at Morenci Area High School.

By Heather Walker

The first book I remember reading “cover to cover” was S.E. Hinton’s "The Outsiders." My sister and I shared one copy on a camping trip in Wyoming. All day we read shoulder to shoulder, perched on a boulder overlooking the river, completely oblivious to the mountain view, transported, instead, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965, home of the “Greasers” and the “Socs.” We were 12. 

In high school "The Catcher in the Rye" had a similar intoxicating effect. Salinger had me at “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” and I finished the book in three days—sad to part with my irreverent friend, Holden Caulfield, knowing his existence was limited to 224 paperback pages. 

Anyone who has ever lost themselves in a book can relate. To become engrossed in a book is to leave this world and enter another. That’s the magic of reading. 

It is also the risk. 

Earlier this summer, anticipating completion of the last few remaining yearbook pages and departure from my classroom until sometime in August, I posed the following question to my Facebook friends, ”I may soon have time to read a book for pleasure. What do you suggest?”  Thirty-four suggestions later, I had plenty to work with, though not entirely surprising, I didn’t take anyone’s advice.

Instead, I read Ian Caldwell’s "The Rule of Four" (the inspiration for my last column) and "The Fifth Gospel," Steve Berry’s "The Third Secret," Amy Tan’s "The Valley of Amazement," and most recently, Myla Goldberg’s "Bee Season" (worst ending, ever, by the way). That’s more than 2,000 pages in about six weeks, or about 50 pages a day. 

No big deal, right? After all, it’s summer break. 

Let’s do some math. If it takes the average adult 2 minutes to read a page, that equates to 4,000 minutes of reading for me this summer or 67 hours. Sixty-seven hours!? No wonder the bedrooms aren’t repainted, the basement isn’t organized, the closets aren’t purged, the flowers aren’t planted, heck, the dogs aren’t even bathed!

Reading, that temptress, has made me a sloth. And what’s worse, it’s made me an aloof sloth. My poor husband sees the top of my head more than my face these days. While we used to stand at the kitchen island and talk in the evenings, our conversation is now limited to brief remarks between chapters or when I’m jolted back to reality by the oven timer buzzing or a pot boiling over. 

Clearly, I’m an addict. Clearly this reading business is dangerous. It hit me last week when I was almost late for an appointment because I HAD TO FINISH THE BOOK. Wet hair, no makeup, speeding up M-52, I vowed to make a change. I had to give up reading (or at least limit myself to audio books only—that way, I could at least get some cleaning and painting done simultaneously). 

A few days later, though, I was back at the library, jonesing for a fix. Pam, the pusher, was kind enough to help me check out not just one, but two hard covers, along with two audio books. I have yet to pick up a paint brush. 

It’s a strange paradox, reading. At its best, it is the key that unlocks the collective wisdom of humankind; at its worst, it is a femme fatale that threatens responsibility and relationships. Reading renders a person completely incapable of doing anything else. When your head is in a book—you are no longer in your kitchen or your bedroom. You are in Shanghai, 1912, or the Vatican, 2000. You are no longer a 43-year-old wife, mother and English teacher. You are the Pope’s most trusted high-ranking priest or a 9-year-old Jewish spelling wiz. What a blessing! What a curse! Reading provides a total escape from reality—for better or worse. 

So far no one in my family has complained about my reading bender this summer. My 13-year-old son probably hasn’t noticed, and though I’m sure my husband has, he has said nothing because he is the kindest, most unconditionally loving man on the planet. Still, I need to find some balance. I need to ration my reading time like dessert, allowing myself a few chapters only AFTER getting something—anything—done. Or perhaps I need to just go cold turkey—avoid the library completely for the next few weeks. 

After all, come September it won’t matter. Everyone knows there’s no time to read once school starts.