On Reading Books

On a stay on Key Biscayne Mom and I visited a bookshop owned by an old woman. I was 12. She was maybe 60 or 80—or 42. For a Florida native she was Scandinavian pale.

Her bulging blue eyes were dark as the North Sea, her white skin milky blue, her hair thin, clasped off her neck in a loose chignon, bleached white with age—or peroxide. She wore gloves to protect her beloveds—her flesh salty and acidic and corrosive in its natural, unsheathed state.

“Never touch a book with your bare hands,” she warned as I reached for a copy of The Thorn Birds. She offered me a basket filled with white cotton gloves, fingers up, like rabbits’ ears pricked to hear her read today’s story—but of course Peter Rabbit. I tugged a pair out of the basket and left a messy nest of bunnies ears flopping over the wicker rim.

She handed the book to me, cautiously, as if the novel had been etched on spun glass. I opened it, barely wide enough to cast light on the subject, and scanned a page, lightly, as if my glance would break the thin lines of ink, not understanding yet the power and strength, the endurance of the written word. With which to span millennia. From which to hang concepts. To start wars. To heal.

I turned a page. Her covetous manner surrounded me like an aura as fine as her hair. I watched myself retarding my motion. I’d read hundreds of books. I’d never torn a page. “Never set a glass on a book,” Mom taught all of us. I also learned: “Never set another book on top of the Bible.” I don’t remember who taught me that.

My mom put books in my hands since I don’t know. I never feared mistreating them. I revered them. This woman with books for children taught apprehension instead of care. She said, “Never turn a page from the top.” My hand stayed. “Always turn from the bottom.”

My high school social studies teacher stood in front of the class and taught us about being human. He said watch an athlete run into the locker room after a game sniff his armpit, raise a pair of sweaty socks to his nose. Smell myself? In public? Not thinking? Perhaps he read the look of horror on my face.“We’re animals,” he said, teaching an ancient truth to an adolescent mind.

Norm Charpentier. Big and ruddy. A balding, red-headed man with blond beard and a comb-over. He had a deep chest, thick shoulders, and a chuckly laugh. Open and friendly and chiding. And safe.

He handed out paperbacks. The blue-haired woman’s lessons notwithstanding, I wriggled in my seat. I loved books. Norm held his copy up in front of the class. He said, “I can’t stand when I can’t see the words in the center of a book. See?” He held it higher. “Take your book. Open it up.” I must have looked perplexed. An exact person, I didn’t want to miss a step.

He clarified, “Any page. Somewhere. Near the middle.” He held the book open, his meaty hands gripping either side, and CRACK he broke the spine.

I don’t wear white cotton gloves to protect my books as I read them, but neither do I break their backs. I read one-handed, my head and shoulders propped against pillows for just the right angle that keeps the print steady and the page awash in light. My right hand is tucked warmly under the covers, leaving the left to act as a reading stand, to turn cold and stiff as a stone altar, a willing sacrifice.

My books are separating at the bottom, the glue splitting from the pages where my splayed fingers apply constant, opposing pressure—so I can see all the words a writer intended me to feel.

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