Not to thumb my nose at dogs, but books are every person’s best friend. That was particularly true for me as a child (if only because there was so little competition for the title). My dad keeps a file folder (several, actually) of little ribbons, letters, drawings, and accomplishments of mine throughout the years. There’s a separate Ziploc bag in said folders of my reading ribbons earned from the library’s summer reading program. Well before I hit the age of reading chapter books, the children’s librarian switched me over from the “number of books read” program to the “number of pages read” program because I blew through it so fast.
It’s easy to be passionate about reading, particularly as a home-schooled kid with no routine and little parental oversight, in a time when technology hadn’t yet permeated every iota of our existence. We had televisions in most rooms, operated by an actual clicker, but woe betide the child who turned it on MTV or anything that hinted of pop music or fashion. The evening news, variety shows, and as many musicals or westerns as we could handle were our standard fare. As Dad threatened, verbatim, if we watched anything else he would pull it out of the wall so fast, our heads would spin. I remember when our area got “the talking phone book, where you let your fingers do the walking.” My teenaged brothers and their friends would call the recordings for the local adult stores just to hear the sultry or playful voices. This had to have been the cheapest kind of jollies a teenaged boy afraid to have porn in the house could have. Point being, we were all pretty easily entertained and fancy schmancy technology toys were scarce.
Books were plentiful, though, and I soon realized that if I eschewed the summer reading programs and didn’t write down what I read, I was effectively uncensored. (Duplicitous acts like falsifying reading program logs never occurred to me, nor did I think to not take full credit for every book read – so I just stopped participating.) For a long while, my favorite books were the ones that were formulaic – Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, and Harlequin novels. (Yes, I progressed quickly to the section of the library that I probably shouldn’t have been in.) I enjoyed the variety of serial novels that routinely concluded within approximately 180 pages with the plot and subplots resolved neatly and the slate wiped clean for the next book. The stories were comfortable. I knew the characters would receive their just desserts at the end, love would reign triumphant, and the dark side of the force would be held at bay by the persistent spirit of mankind.
As my reading tastes broadened and matured, it has held true that stories hold to the common themes of some kind of character on some kind of quest that concludes with the character accomplishing something at the end (even if it’s just a greater understanding of self). Even if the bad guys/gals win, there’s still a certain thread of inevitability that the omnipotent author shares with the omniscient reader like a little inside joke. In a well-written book, we feel the steady pulse as the plot unfolds around a central theme and we collectively are carried to conclusion. Part of what makes a reader’s experience enjoyable is that all elements are carefully organized as plots, subplots, themes, and scenery or history. Obfuscating details are eliminated.
By contrast, there is life. Life contains a lot of white noise. It’s not just distracting. it’s emotionally exhausting as well. In stories, we, the readers, know even if the characters do not, what the focal points are and what to ignore, with the aid of the author, of course. But life doesn’t facilitate this single-minded focus. There are lots of shiny things to distract us, as well as impulses, emotions, temptations, and pressures.
In a way I’ll go into more in a later post, this “white noise” is a lot of what causes my stomach-ache. Was I “fated” to be where I am today? Was I meant to be a mother? Am I supposed to be with my husband? Are there other things I should be doing with my life, ways that I could feel more enriched, more fulfilled, and less stomach-achy? Do I cut my losses and change, knowing it’s hard but hoping some day I’ll look back and think it was the best decision I ever made? Or do I maintain the status quo because that’s the right thing to do, and then hope that these feelings, frustrations, and desires pass?
If I’m Madame Bovary, it’s so clear that my interests will lead to unhappiness. If I’m Anna Karenina, it may lead to happiness if only I can temper my irrationality although I may leave havoc and heartache in my wake. If I’m Scarlet, my decisions are actually indicators of persistence and an unwillingness to compromise. If I’m Jane Eyre, loyalty will be my hallmark and I shall not stray.
But I’m not. I’m me and my life has no re-write potential, and there’s only once chance to do it right. That makes my stomach hurt.