Tuesday, April 8, 2008

The Need to Read

Several times a night, we fall into what is known as REM sleep. REM stands for the “rapid eye movement” that characterizes such episodes -- and it’s during those times that we dream most vividly. I’ve often wondered if there isn’t some daytime equivalent to REM sleep -- some physiological need that makes us pick up a book and scan left to right, left to right -- drawn, dreamlike, into words and stories. I call it a “need” because, even when there is no book around, my eyes seem to seek out any written material and become hypnotized by the list of ingredients on the back of a cereal box...the instructions on a cough syrup bottle...the advertising claims splashed across the front of nearly every product’s packaging....

I sometimes even see this in people who don’t read books at all.

They were probably the most unsophisticated people I’ve ever known. They lived and died without ever leaving their home state. Neither one learned to drive a car. They never owned a color TV. Never set foot in a mall. Never ate (what I heard her once call) a “pizza pie.” I doubt they graduated from high school. They spent their lives working at hard, dirty factory jobs. When we came to visit, their coffee table was covered with bowls of potato chips and cheese curls and Hershey’s kisses -- all later packed in plastic bags for us to take home, along with toys and comic books and jars of pennies. There were no books in this house -- at least none that I ever saw. Yet occasionally, when he spoke, he made a literary reference. He might mention someone being an orphan “just like Oliver Twist” or an attic “like the one in JANE EYRE.” Yet I knew he had not read these books.

Once we spent a couple nights at this house. We begged to go up in the attic which wasn’t exactly “like the one in JANE EYRE,” but was scary enough -- dark and cold and cavernous. Pushed against the wall we found a creaky old bureau and, inside the top drawer, stacks of “Classics Illustrated” comics -- DON QUIXOTE, WAR OF THE WORLDS, MOBY-DICK and, yes, OLIVER TWIST and JANE EYRE and dozens more, many going back to the 1940s and 1950s.

“You can take those home,” he said, as he always did. So we excitedly carried the comics downstairs and put them in paper bags to take home, too young and self-absorbed to realize we were probably taking away every book he had ever read.

They went to bed early, every night, but would often get up at one or two or three a.m. to sit in the kitchen, drinking coffee and smoking cigarette after cigarette. Again, we were too young and self-absorbed to even contemplate what kind of private pain causes sleepness nights -- the kind where the distraction of sitting with endless cups of coffee and cigarettes is preferable to lying awake with your own thoughts. To us it felt like a party, joining them at the kitchen table, eating cookies, drinking milk, and listening to their tinny radio softly playing in the background. I noticed that every time they’d shake another Camel out of the pack, they’d stare at the back of the package, scanning left to right as intently as I did when reading a book. “What are you reading?” I finally asked, and she handed me her pack of cigarettes and pointed to the writing on the back. I can’t even remember what it said now...I think it may have been a brief paragraph or two explaining the history of -- and extolling the virtues of -- Camel cigarettes. “We always count the number of E’s on the back,” she explained. “It’s always eleven.”

I counted the E’s and said, “Yeah, it’s eleven.”

“Everybody thinks that,” she said, “but one man at work said he found twelve.”

I counted again. “It’s eleven.”

She widened her eyes and shrugged her shoulders saying, “See what I mean? Nobody can ever find the twelfth one, but it’s there. A man at work saw it.”

A couple days later we went home, carrying our sacks of Classics Illustrated. Sometimes after that, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and lay there in the dark, knowing that, miles away, they were sitting across from each other at their kitchen table -- drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, listening to the radio, and reading -– for the ten-thousandth, eleventh-thousandth, maybe twelve-thousandth time -- the words on the back of the Camel package, looking for that twelfth E.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what a great story! Thank you.