On the radio this morning, there was a conversation about books people say they’ve read when they haven’t. Moby Dick, for example. Apparently, there are a lot of books that don’t get read that we want other people to think we have read. Ok, yes, I guess I can imagine it: you’re at a party and you don’t want to be left out of the conversation on The Kite Runner, but I wouldn’t have thought it was a hugely common thing. The media keep telling us that books are dead, so it’s curious that anyone would be lying about having read one. And the reasons for lying surprise me too. Apparently, there are men who lie for sex. I really want someone to explain that one to me!
Though I have yet to make sense of any of this, it did inspire today’s memoir:
At 18 I had my first real job (not that baby sitting and being a camp counselor weren’t hard work, but they were fun and didn’t feel like jobs … the paper route was work, but I was only doing the collections while my brother had the hard slog of actually making the deliveries, so it didn’t feel like it was really my job … whatever). I was living at my aunt’s house on the Hudson for the summer and the job was in the South Bronx. I had to take three long bus rides to get there.
I was fresh off my first year of college and was ridiculously, pompously arrogant about my brilliance while at the same time having a mid-life crisis because I was already 18 and hadn’t achieved anything in my life. I think these things are worth mentioning because both are surely responsible for my decision to read War and Peace during my commute.¹
One afternoon, in the middle of my second bus, some guy sidled up to me. No, really, he sidled. It wasn’t something I thought people actually did until that day. He slid into the seat beside me and leaned in to breathe in my ear, “Are you reading a romance novel?”
I looked at him with something that I hoped resembled the Face of Beligerance my mother and sister are so good at. I held my book up so he could see what I was, in fact, reading. I waiting a beat, two beats.
He slid away from me and sat somewhere else!
That was a glorious lightbulb moment. I could send smarmy men packing just by reading (look down your nose and sniff) SERIOUS LIT ‘ RATURE. Now, like any good scientist, I didn’t just assume my hypothesis was fact. I experimented. I tried out my flash-the-book-jacket theory over the next week, and it worked every time. Result!
I loved War and Peace. Really loved it. It was huge and small at the same time, so full of story lines and people and drama. A rollercoaster ride that kept me turning the pages.
When I finished it, I didn’t feel like reading anything else right away. I wanted time to think about it, to let it sift through my brain a little without some new story line getting in the way. But I also wanted to keep the protective field that Leo’s opus had created around me. What to do?
For a while, I kept the book with me, going back and re-reading sections, but that got old quickly. So I went back to the bookshelf and came away with Ulysses. I wasn’t ready to read anything new, and (for all my storied brilliance) wasn’t ready for Joyce, but no matter. I had no intention of reading the book. I just carried it around.²
Yes, it’s true. I used Ulysses like pepper spray. And once again, let me assure you: it worked. My rides were uninterrupted for the rest of the pitiful few weeks I kept that lousy job!³ I never lied about having read Ulysses, however. The lie would have ruined my story, so what would have been the point?
¹ Reading War and Peace was the slow-starting spark of the can’t-get-enough-of-the-Russians phase I went through a few years later, leading me through Tolstoy, Dostoyevky and Solzhenitsyn, eventually moving on to Nabokov (everything but Lolita, for the sake of full disclosure) and blurring lines by reading Darkness at Noon years later during my can’t-get-enough-of-show-trials-and-Soviet-power-struggles phase.
² When I finally did read it — the summer before my second year of grad school — I found that, rather than repel conversations with strangers, it attracted them! Not so many smarmy men that go-round, but lots of people felt perfectly comfortable questioning me about the book, from folks sitting opposite me on the subway to a postal worker selling me stamps.
³ How have I not written a memoir about this job? I’ll have to start working on that for next week!
are hosted by Stacey and Ruth at Two Writing Teachers.