Years ago I saw a crappy banged up car—we’re talking about a total rust bucket—with a bumper sticker that read “When the rapture comes can I have your car?” Despite never having owned a car, I wanted that bumper sticker.
I sincerely hope that the pious believers of the world will receive their heavenly reward and why would any decent gods or deities deny their faithful? As a pragmatist I realize I’ll not be among the heaven-dwellers. It’s not that I’ve been such a bad person, nor am I an atheist, but I haven’t settled in to a proper religious practice in a such a way that I would be singled out for eternal dividends. Anyway, I quite like the idea of being left behind, as long as there will still be books and people left to run the libraries.
I can’t exactly say that reading gives me rapture: reading for me is more like a feeling of space. You know I can actually remember reading my first word—we—in my first book— “We Feed a Deer.” I sounded out the word, I got it, I moved on to the next word. It was all mine right then, the practice of reading and the world of books was opened up with this invigorating feeling of space.
My hometown was tiny and rural, but we still had a library. I worked my way through that library with ferocity. From Balzac to beekeeping to the Bolshevik Revolution: I was the 9 year old version of Sartre’s Self-Taught man. And at school there was the school librarian, the divine Mrs. Kemp, who gently nudged me in the direction of appropriate reading but never denied me any book, ever.
Appropriate books? Well let’s say I left those behind and dived deep into the inappropriately salacious, starting with my stepdad’s leftover college books, which he apparently never read himself or he surely would have been alarmed. That was the thing I figured out early: adults looked at me with approval for the act of reading but they never questioned what I was reading. I mean, I was a preteen walking around with Henry Miller, with William F. Burroughs for god’s sake. (I did have a close call with my Aunt Wanda, a teacher from California, who intercepted me with one of the diaries of Anais Nin and said “What exactly are you reading there young lady?” After that, I made sure to revert to girl detective mysteries whenever she was in town).
Adults were also under the impression that reading made me smart. Reading did not make me smart, but it gave me confidence to leap into the intellectual unknown, to other times and lives and foreign places (since before I was a traveler I was a reader.) Because I started with complicated books so young, I learned to accept, and even relish, an unknown vocabulary and references to the world that were completely beyond my experience. One of my favorite books was about a rich English girl from India who is sent to a boarding school in London and ends up destitute and living with a cockney servant. When I first read the book I was unclear what the countries England and India were, and of course I had no concept of colonialism or what the heck a cockney accent was. But I liked the sound of the words and how they felt in my head. As a college student majoring in philosophy this ability to swim through books well above my intellectual level keep me afloat and away from the frustration my smarter classmates often experienced.
As an adult I’ve kept my library card busy. While it’s not something I’m sorry about, I confess to have been guilty of years of indiscriminately raiding the library shelves, with little direction to my reading. This changed about 15 years ago when I joined a reading group: Great Books Group. What a revelation! Reading, once a solitary act, is now a practice I share with other insightful and generous readers. Our group, which meets bi-weekly at the (wait for it now) library, has been around for over forty years. While sadly we’ve lost members to age and infirmity, our co-leaders have remained the same: Peter and Dan. Dan chooses a yearly theme for Great Books and then selects a reading list based on the theme. (What Dan thinks is a suitable book to complete in a two week time period is often quite hilarious—-a 500 page history book is not unusual). Dan is a fine writer himself and frequently composes poems in response to our reading selections. Peter is a classics scholar (he knows Latin and Greek) with the benevolent disposition of a secular saint. I wish you all could know Peter, whose tendency to constantly reference Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time and Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy is the source of much teasing by Great Books members. Peter is a natural born teacher and while my identification with The Wife of Bath from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is largely aspirational, Peter is a living embodiment of Chaucer’s Clerk: “And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.”
Despite our rigorous reading schedule for Great Books, I still read a variety of other books. Thanks to my insomnia, I have plenty of time for night reading, which centers on thriller novels. I adore thriller novels! The best thrillers contain a robust combination of the following; disposable “burner” cell phones, hidden bugs or tracking devices, a person who gets shot with a tranquilizer dart, and a character who—in order to change their appearance on short notice—cuts and dyes their hair in a gas station restroom. I read travel guides of course, and popular current affairs books, but mostly fiction. My default author for times of stress is Charles Dickens. I’ve read all of his books, most multiple times, though reading him can be like eating food covered in too many condiments. Also, I do wish I could go back in time and say “Charles, my friend, please chill out with inheritance plots, okay dude?”
Chicago is a great city, a city with 79 libraries and the excellent Chicago Public Library website which I visit most days to place (paper and digital) books on hold. The pang of joy I feel from the inbox message reading “Materials you have requested are available for pickup” is matched only by the devastation of “Error! You’ve reached the maximum amount of titles you can place a hold on at this time.” Yes, unfortunately, there is a limit to the number of holds per library card, and I am always at that limit. So do me a solid: if you’re one of the lucky ones ascending to your seat next to a higher power, before you depart, give me your library card. You won’t be needing it anymore, and maybe up there in the white, angel-laden place you could think of me back on earth, left behind, with twice as many library books in my queue.