Disbelief

“Why on Earth do you read them more than once?”

The questioner’s tone of voice drips with shock and disbelief as if I had casually admitted to sniffing white-out. Moments prior I had casually mentioned to the girl sitting next to me (a beautiful freckled young lady equipped with a British accent, a passion for Jane Austen, and a wedding band) that I habitually reread some novels every year. She nods rigorously chewing tuna salad, when a question breaks into our conversation.

I drop my sandwich onto the lunch table, swallowing before I answer. The rest of the lunch table has now turned their attention towards me and David, my fellow student-turned-interrogator in this week-long summer class on digital libraries. From nine to five, we sit and listen to technical lectures about our future careers, while I daydream about summer movies and dinosaurs. If a giant scaly monster crashed through the projector and ripped me in half, I could save several excruciating hours trying in vain to remain awake.

I take a sip of room temp Pepsi.

“Yeah,” I shrug. “It’s like revisiting old friends. Some books like The Lord of the Rings, The Count of Monte Cristo, or Pride and Prejudice, I read about once every year.”

“Ugh, why?” David scoffs this time. And I am reminded why I do not like him much. Like me, David has admitted to some previous experience as a scientist – philosophy apparently. Unfortunately like many scientists, he retains a personality akin to the man in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” never bothering to develop an imagination or a sense of humor.

“I guess that I just enjoy reading,” I laugh. “I can be quite passionate about my stories sometimes.”

“But when do you find time?” he persists with such astonishment that I pause, wondering if I had misunderstood the question. When he speaks, he shakes his head with wonderment revealing a thick furry beard, the barbershop love-child between Chuck Norris and a muppet.

“Um . . . I don’t know,” I say. “On the metro, before bed, during my free time . . . uh lunch. I guess that I just make time to read.” After all, stories are important to me. Like taking showers in the morning or putting on your shoes, you learn to piece reading into your lifestyle.

Despite my explanation, David does not appear to understand, which honestly shocks me a bit. What must he do in his own free time to merit such incredulity? Although as I recall, David excels at asking awkward questions. Once during a cataloguing class, he felt inspired to reveal his revulsion of the social tagging site, del.icio.us.

“Why do all these websites have such stupid names?” he would ask. “Meaningless names that have nothing to do with what they do. Google, del.icio.us, Yahoo. They don’t make sense. They don’t mean anything. It’s stupid.”

Silence.

“Um . . .” someone remarks. “Unusual or quirky names, I guess, help people remember, right? Like cereal brands or detergent names.”

“But the websites names are asinine. Why can’t they tell us something about the site? Or what it does?”

No arguments concerning marketing and memory could convince him. Someone even mentioned that Google was now a verb in the dictionary. People after all who can easily remember site names are more often to visit them.

“It’s still makes me sick,” was his only reply.

Lunch ends, and as we leave I ask David what he enjoys reading.

“Nothing,” he says. “I don’t read. Or watch movies. I don’t have time.”

“Oh,” I blurt, surprised at his answer. I mean who does not have time for a book or movie every now and then? Oh but maybe he means fiction . . . “Well, I have a cousin who doesn’t care much for stories or fiction either, but he’s a great fan of news, biographies, and histories. Did ever read Richard Preston’s Hot Zone?”

“No, I do not read,” David reiterated, emphasizing the ‘read’ as if I had just been rendered deaf.

“Oh.” In the end that was all I could say.

Children don’t read to find their identity, to free themselves from guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion or to get rid of alienation. They have no use for psychology…. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff…. When a book is boring, they yawn openly. They don’t expect their writer to redeem humanity, but leave to adults such childish illusions.

— Isaac Bashevis Singer

Story Sickness

Presently I am recovering from particularly viral strain of “story sickness.” At least, that is the name I give to it, that passionate “fevered” desire to complete a particularly imaginative or well-told tale, and the effects are not pretty. The story envelops me. I cannot eat. I cannot sleep. I relinquish all work – as well as most conscious thought – as I devour page after page or scene after scene, driven to discover “What happens next?” Does the Count exact his revenge? Does Taran save his friends from the Black Cauldron? If Nia transforms into an intergalactic harbinger of death and destruction, how will she and Simone ever be together? Stuff like that.

I recall one night several years ago, when my Dad knocked on my door sometime around one or two in the morning. Both of my parents had not seen me for much of the evening. I had disappeared to my room right after inhaling some steak and potatoes and rapidly spitting out a garbled “One moment, Mom. Room with flying keys! Gotta go!” Relinquishing them to this cryptic phrase and some small tuffs of fallen potatoes, I scampered down to my room without a sound.

Worried at my unusual absence, the late hours, and whether I was alive or dead – being the good parents that they are – they decided to check on me. So spying the light creeping beneath my door past midnight, Dad decided to investigate. I, of course, had been reading all day. Recently, you see, my brother Ryan had received the fourth Harry Potter book, and taking an interest in the hype I opened the Sorcerer’s Stone that afternoon . . .

“Are you still up? What are doing in here?”

“Learning magic.” (I cannot recall exactly what I said here, but it was something to this effect. I possess little shame.)

“A book? You’re reading a book at three o’clock in the morning?”

“Yeah, Dad, this book is incredible! The storytelling is fantastic. It just pulled me in almost as soon as I began.”

“Well, remember not to burn the candle at both ends. In a few hours, it will be dawn, and you have to take the kids to school tomorrow. You can always finish tomorrow, you know.”

“I know. I know. But I’m almost finished this second book. It’s so hard to put down. I’ll go to sleep soon. I promise.”

Shortly after that, Hogwarts safe once more and basilisk slain, the second book ended, and I lay on the bed exhausted. With a flip of a switch the Walmart-bought fan twirls and cools my head, steaming with potential ideas for Harry’s later chronicles. Will Voldemort return? What is his connection with Harry? Will Ron always be the comic relief?

“I wonder if Harry fancies Ginny or Hermione?” I think aloud. A few minutes later, I break my promise and leaf through the third book until five or six in the morning. I fall asleep for an hour or two, waking exhausted somewhere between pages one-hundred twenty-eight and twenty-nine. The pages peel from my drool-dampened cheeks and ears. Like a wino with a hangover, I curse at the sun, shining brightly through my windows and stumble off to find Sean and my car keys. I – safely – drive my brothers across town to summer swimming practice, where I then waited in the parking lot, my mind passing into slumber and dreams: detailed visions of wizards, castles, and werewolves.

Such is the nature of my affliction, my “story sickness.” Considering the number of stories I finish each year, few provoke such unhealthy responses. Typically coming-of-age tales empowered with dynamic characters, heroic battles, or the search for true love incites the germ (at heart I am a hopeless romantic). Combine these elements with incredible writing or poetic prose, and the infection spreads. The story consumes me, and for hours or days later I am lost within another world among friends, both old and new. The story sickness strikes once again.

Of course, others may know of a more clinical term – insanity perhaps. My siblings simply tell their friends that their older brother is weird and a little eccentric at times, citing the T-shirt wisdom: “He lives in his own little world, but it’s okay they know him there.” I have heard the word “obsessed” too, somewhere in the din as I sat reading Verne and Doyle long ago. I cannot remember when or where. Growing up in a family of ten, you learn to cloud much of the daily cacophony, especially when there are lands to explore and ghost hounds to unmask.

Frankly, I have just learned to accept the fact that stories are a natural part of my life. A natural inclination like the love of seashores or ice cream. It is akin to breathing. Inhale and exhale. Read and write. The only difficulty lies in choosing between the two:

It’s hard to know when to respond to the seductiveness of the world and when to respond to its challenges. If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn by the twin desires to reform the world and to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.
— E. B. White