Books ended up being my one reliable source of stability. I liked books. Reading functioned as a powerful form of escape- they gave my mind a way to blunt much of the anxiety and stress. They permeated every aspect of my life…I used books like shields, tried to work them into as many situations as possible.
But taking a book everywhere is actually harder than you might think. Early on, I discovered: people don’t like readers. I don’t know why, but they don’t. You can watch television for 8 hours a day and no one cares…you can actually bond with people more easily if you watch a lot of television. Reading, on the other hand, brings none of the social benefits of television-watching…it can even be a hindrance, due to the apathy most people have for reading.
And so, even though books were an enormous help to me, it was difficult to keep one with me at all times.
At school, on the playground, for example: I didn’t have any groups to mesh with…I didn’t start making friends until later in life, which made recess pretty boring. I was lonely and didn’t have anything to do.
To deal with the free time, I tried reading books. However, that’s against the Hidden Rules. At recess, you can’t sit by yourself, for one thing…that signals lack of status. Bullies are drawn to people like that (think: nature documentary; animal strays from the herd; surrounding predators pick them off). And you definitely can’t sit by yourself and read…that’s pure, undiluted blood in the water. I didn’t try that too many times. (I’m hoping it’s better for kids today…I grew up in a small, rural town. In the South. 30 years ago. Difference was treated like an irritating mosquito; and there was no shortage of people willing to squish that mosquito.)
The lack of books made recess a drag…reading was a nice place to tuck my thoughts away. Due to the boredom and people-fear…and because it was so bright outside, more than my eyes could take…I would frequently claim to feel sick and ask if I could lay down in the classroom, skip recess. I’d get away with that once every few weeks. That was nice. In the classroom, I could read. I’d lay on a little mat…peruse whatever book was nearby. Then the bell would ring, signaling the end of recess…I’d hear all of those noisy little monsters stomping back into the building; it made my heart clench up, that bell…I’d put the book down, slump over to my desk, mentally brace myself for the rest of the day.
Books, books, books.
During those same years, my dad would drag me into the deer woods in the winter. It wasn’t too bad, but only because I never made any attempts to shoot anything; never seemed like an interesting idea to me. However, I liked the woods, so I didn’t mind sitting there, waiting it out.
Dad would set me up in a stand, walk off to his own stand at a distant location. Once he was far enough away…I’d reach into a wide coat pocket…pull out a book…start reading. Deep in the woods, lost in a story; it was a nice way to spend the day.
Of course, no one knew that I was smuggling books into the deer woods. In the culture of where I’m from, hunting is for hunting. You take it seriously. Reading on a deer stand just wasn’t something people did. Knowing that, I surreptitiously crammed books into pockets…paperbacks; whatever was lying around, usually popular novels my dad was reading (military fiction, Stephen King) and/or chapter books for kids my age (Judy Blume, Narnia; anything with aliens. I liked aliens).
On a stand, alone…eight, ten hours. Words and deep woods…I enjoyed the peace of it.
That was the exception, not the rule. Most places it’s tough to have a book handy, due to the social consequences.
Today, as an adult, I don’t experience negative reactions for reading. People don’t mind, they’re indifferent. But I can’t help but notice that this indifference carries it’s own price.
What I’ve realized over the years is that popular culture serves a purpose: it stamps pre-existing conversations into people. Television, sports, etc…it instills in people a communal experience that allows them to more easily share reactions, thoughts, feelings.
And when a person focuses on special interests to the exclusion of popular culture, they’re shut out of that communal experience…they lack the pre-existing stock of conversation topics that can make interactions easier to navigate.
Special interests and popular culture too often seem inversely proportional to one another. The more prominence popular culture gains, the more alienated those with special interests can feel.
I’m curious to see if the internet ameliorates any of these tensions over time. Social media seems to both reward special interests, yet magnify popular culture. I’m not savvy enough about these things to know where it’s going. Maybe it creates a larger gulf between people. Maybe it creates more opportunities for connection.
Maybe, until that question is resolved, I’ll just be reading.