The Last Word
She's not hostile, she's reading
On rare occasions, I have been known to use books to hide behind; to keep my eyes on the printed page in order to not have to converse. This is especially true on the boat when, after a long ride, or a particularly tiring afternoon, all I want is to sit quietly and read my book and not make conversation. It doesn't even have to be a good book. A silly page-turner will do. I am engrossed, please do not disturb. This isn't unfriendliness; this is just a Zen-like way of finding a private space on a public conveyance.
Reading and riding are an old habit with me. I've read on buses, boats, airplanes, cars and trains. When I was a commuter, riding a bus from Middletown to Hartford, Connecticut every day, I always had a book to read. It was the only time in a busy day to read, and I relished that twice-a-day, twenty-five minutes. I burned through books like mad at that rate. But the books also allowed me a certain solitude, so that, while being companionable beside fellow commuters, I didn't have to make thoughtful conversation at seven in the morning. "What are you reading?" we'd ask one another, chat weather for a bit, then settle into our respective reads. Like being in a mobile library.
I can remember my godmother teasing me: "Oh, you. Always with your nose in a book." She made it sound vaguely criminal. I took heart though, lots of really good characters in young adult fiction are thusly accused, and I took it as a badge of honor. I admit, as a kid, I did hide behind books. Like so many bookworms, I preferred the accusation of being of bookish to being simply dull company. Identified as a reader, not a talker, I was one of the 'quiet' kids beloved by teachers. Beloved enough to sort of be ignored, but that didn't bother me. I spent hours in the school library, picking through the small selection, looking mostly for animal stories. I begged for a library pass, not to get out of the classroom but because I needed to go to the library and get another book. I borrowed Les Miserables in sixth grade. I do believe that Mrs. Bean (yes, that was her real name, Ada Bean) thought she'd died and gone to heaven to have a child pull Victor Hugo off the shelf at the Middlefield Memorial School. I even finished it, although I was always stuck on trying to pronounce Jean Valjean's name correctly, even in my head.
The act of holding a book open, whether propped up on a school desk or in one's lap, signals to most people that the reader has entered another world. A look of fierce concentration, or eyes wide in wonder, help solidify the impression. Oh, sorry, didn't see you there. I actually would get so engrossed that on occasion that I got left behind when the kids went out to recess. And any time I could talk the teacher into letting me stay in for recess, I was ecstatic. When those long ago teachers of mine would order us to a half hour of free reading time, I was in heaven. Free reading!
As a shy child, I was dependent upon this screen between me and interaction with others. I got over it. Kids usually do. What I didn't grow out of was the occasional need to put up that barrier. Not because I don't like people, because I do; but because reading is, for me, beyond relaxing, it's necessary. If I don't have my one hour of reading before getting ready for the day, I'm not a happy camper. On the boat, that forty-five minute chunk of time with no other obligations is golden. I want to read. Torture is finishing a book on the way over, and not having anything to read on the way back. Reading is a pleasure, a habit, an addiction, if you will. On the other hand, reading is a socially acceptable public activity and doesn't make any noise, like those hand-held games the kids are playing with their thumbs.
So, my friends, forgive me if I don't look up as you come along heading to the snack bar. See my eyes dilated at the exciting words on the page, the slight twitch of a smile as the author amuses me in some fashion. The white knuckles as the hero dangles over the cliff. I'm not here. I'm there. Talk to you later.
Susan Wilson is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Oak Bluffs. Visit her web site at susanwilsonwrites.com.