I have always been a reader. I read my first non-illustrated juvenile paperback novel in the end of first grade. It was some kind of a mystery involving danger and a treehouse. I loved being sucked into another world. And I would often, during required nap time, lie awake and make up new stories for beloved characters. By the time I entered middle school, I was devouring a teen novel or two a day (usually 80s series books like Dark Forces, Twilight – not THE Twilight, and Sweet Dreams) before moving on to popular adult fiction. I loved reading and writing and couldn’t get enough.
When I was still fifteen, I was moved out of a standard English class and was bumped up a year into AP English Lit – skipping over the AP class offered to juniors. I was petrified walking into that room full what would be that year’s honor graduates and valedictorian. I sat down and listened to the teacher’s discussion with the class, both mesmerized and trying not to look stupid at the same time. And then she passed out Richard Wilbur’s poem “Death of a Toad” and asked us to ”explicate the metaphorical relationship between that of modern man and the toad”.
A lot of folks would find this torture. But me? I was instantly hooked. I loved taking the author’s words apart, finding relationships between ideas, and seeing the not-at-all accidental uses of figurative language. The genius of classic authors and their works enthralled me, and I was soon reading such works as The Sound and the Fury, Invisible Man, and Beloved without being assigned to do so. And, like many avid readers, I was hoping that somewhere within me was a great novel yet to be written.
I went on to major in English Education and then to teach middle school English for five years before getting my media specialist certification and taking a position in a middle school library. Yep, I’m a card-carrying book pusher. I love matching people with just the right book and am the annoying aunt who gives books for gifts. I also moderate an online reading group of about 100 people. So, I have some of the training, degree, and professional credentials to be an official book snob.
They do say confession is good for the soul. So here is where I am going to do the Literary Walk of Shame. Go ahead. Ask me what I’ve been reading for the past six or seven years. Fine. I’ll just say it.
Fluffy paperback mysteries, science fiction, and romance. And, yes – though I cringe somewhat to admit this – paranormal romance. Vampires, werewolves, and the like. Some of you who read more worthy literature may be disappointed in me, I know. But you know what I like about these books? There’s always a happy ending. I don’t have to worry that the author is going to slip a tragedy in on me. I can laugh at witty dialogue, chew my nails at the scary parts, and simply immerse myself in a bit of literary escapism. Sure, characters in paranormal fiction certainly do get eaten by otherworldly baddies, but I have no real concerns about seeing such a thing repeated in real life. I like my fictional tragedy to be of the improbable variety. And, in defense of authors of “mere genre” fiction, some of them are quite good storytellers who write simply to entertain. I now happen to think that is a perfectly noble aspiration, prior book snobbery aside.
There. I’ve said it. I’m hoping the university will not catch wind and revoke my degree.
So why have I turned to the dark side and read only fluff? It’s simple. I find I can no longer read serious literature. It’s all so tragic. Abuse, suicide, genocide, war, terminal illness, child loss, and on and on. Misery compounded by misery. It’s simply too much pain to process when I am so busy trying to process my own. The last respectable works I read were The Kite Runner, Room, and The Book Thief. Surely you see my point. Yes, they were brilliant. Yes, they were thought-provoking. And, yes, there are lines from these novels and the like that still haunt me in the horrible beauty they convey. I can still discuss great novels at length, analyze the symbolism within, etc. But I cannot handle reading them anymore. It’s just…too much. Too much everything.
A few years ago, a very dear friend of mine lost her teenaged child in an accident. Shortly after, my stepmother died of cancer — following five short months of suffering and all-too-early goodbyes. Ten months later, I gave birth to my first child, an experience that – as every parent knows – suddenly clarifies much about life, death, and what really matters. And then, 19 months after that, we had our sweet son – whose autism has also taught me much about love, acceptance, hope, and grief.
In just a few short years, I have witnessed and experienced enough of the true highs and lows on the roller coaster of life that I find I cannot willingly subject myself to taking those rides with people who do not even exist. So, I don’t read drama. Period. For me, there is enough real drama in the world already. Nor do I watch drama. Ditto for most reality competitions. No matter how talented they are, I find can’t stand watching some kid’s dreams shattered. And why some folks choose to willingly demean themselves and others on cheesy reality television is beyond my comprehension. I guess one should just be grateful they don’t have anything more pressing to concern themselves with.
I know that what fiction one chooses to read and what shows are programmed into her DVR aren’t terribly significant. Except that they are yet another sign of the small ways that profound experiences can change you. I am still myself, yet another version of me. And, though there have been many experiences in recent years that have shaped the Me of Now, I find that becoming the mother of a special needs child is the most life-changing. I see the world differently. I have more patience for people, but less tolerance for the drama they inflict upon themselves. I have more compassion for myself, but I question every move and choice I make. And, although the joys I experience are deeper and more meaningful than before, I now see in my own eyes the subtle expression just under the surface of so many parents whose children are born different and therefore vulnerable in a not-so-understanding world.
I am me. But I am not me. And I am not at all certain how many more versions of myself are yet to emerge. Yet I guess that is what life is about — change and adapting to change, over and over again until the ultimate change. I hope I get better at it, seeing as how there is no choice and all.
And, in the meantime, should you encounter me in the bookstore – ducking behind some vampire book display and hiding the covers of my selections from the wandering eyes of absolutely no one – try not to laugh at me. Clearly, I still take myself way too seriously.
Now, I really must go and find out what Alexia* is up to and if it will involve traveling with her werewolf husband on a dirigible on her way to do battle with neer-do-wells. With any luck, it will. Sometimes a temporary escape from reality is all you need.
“Books don’t offer real escape, but they can stop a mind scratching itself raw.”
― David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas: A Novel
*Faithless by Gail Carriger
In what ways have you changed at the parent of a special needs child?
If you enjoyed this post, you might might like: “Why I Won’t Be Getting Mother of the Year: Layers of Understanding”