Thursday, February 17, 2011

Reading With My Octopus Hands: The Sequel

In the days since my lamentation about Reading With My Octopus Hands, I have been trying to tame my book polygamy.  Reading multiple books at the same time leads to different plots tangling together and separate casts of characters running into each other inside my head.  Elbows are jabbed, words exchanged.  It's not pretty in there, folks.

All efforts to pare down my habits to one book at a time have failed, however.  And so I've resorted to compartmentalizing my simul-books into sections of the day.

My Greet-the-Day-With-Poetry Book
       Ever since I was deployed to Iraq in 2005, I've been in the habit of starting the day with verse.  As dawn broke in Baghdad, I would take a few moments to still my mind and shut out the sound of helicopters dopplering overhead by closing my eyes and breathing zen air through my nostrils.  Then, like a chain smoker rolling out of bed, I'd reach for the book of poems on the nightstand.  I started with Billy Collins and eventually worked my way back to Walt Whitman.  Concentrating on dense blocks of language, I could distill my attention down to the elements that were most important.  I was in the war, but I was not of the war.  Billy and Walt helped me make it back home from the combat zone with all the puzzle pieces snapped into place.  I still reach for poetry first thing in the morning--not every day, but as often as I can.  Life's hard enough as it is; but lilting the mind with language while my eyes are still crusted with sleep gets my priorities in order.

Current Greet-the-Day-With-Poetry Book:  Making Certain It Goes On by Richard Hugo

My Morning Coffee Book
       This winter, my work schedule allows me to spend an hour each weekday morning at a local coffee shop, fueling for the day ahead with equal doses of caffeine and words.  I get my cup of joltin' joe, find a corner table, insert the iPod earbuds, hit Shuffle on the Classical Music playlist, and I'm off to the races.  I open my Kindle and start thumb-clicking through pages.  It's always an e-book.  Maybe it's a little show-offy on my part--arrogant S.O.B. isolating himself in the corner with Mozart and one of those newfangled gadgets, who does he think he is?--and a few of the Montana ranchers, their trousers splashed with dried manure, do give me sidelong glances.  But I enjoy the portable convenience of always having the same weight of a book in one hand while I balance a coffee cup in the other.  I'm proud to be newfangled.

Current Morning Coffee Book:  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Lydia Davis translation)

My Throughout-the-Day Book
       Usually the same as the Morning Coffee Kindle Book.  I carry the e-reader in my briefcase during business hours.  If a meeting is delayed or I'm taking a particularly long and arduous bathroom break, I'll whip out the Kindle.  These aren't deep reading sessions; I'm usually just taking sips of paragraphs whenever I can.

My Treadmill Book
       This is something new for me.  Since I'm making an effort to get more exercise into my life, and since I'm an avid multi-tasker, and since there's a convenient book-sized lip on the treadmill in the exercise room of the hotel where I'm staying for the next two months....well, I started thinking, "Why not combine two activities into one?"  Thus, the Treadmill Book was born.  Each night, after the day's meetings are done, I put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, plug in the iPod (again), and walk five miles (without going anywhere).  By virtue of the strenuous nature of this multi-task and the fact that I'm easily distracted by rivulets of sweat burning my eyes, the Treadmill Book should be as close to brain candy as possible.  Hey, I may be rotting my mind, but at least I'm building muscle!

Current Treadmill Book:  Tick-Tock* by James Patterson and some other guy who probably wrote most of this novel but will only get a fraction of the royalties

My Bathtub Book
       This is my oldest and most cherished reading habit.  There is nothing on God's green earth finer than the day's-end soak-n-read.

Long But Pertinent Interlude
       What you are about to read is a true story.
       When I was 11 years old, I got my first salaried job shelving books at the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming.  I’m sure the head librarian broke all sorts of child-labor laws when she hired me, but who cares?  I was in book-lover’s nirvana, that transcendent state where I inhaled book-dust like it was cocaine.  When I was back in the stacks, I got very little Dewey-decimal filing work done—I was too busy leafing through books.  Adult books, I might add.  Books by folks like John Steinbeck, Vladimir Nabokov and (gasp) Sidney Sheldon. Ah, the corruption of youth!
      One of the giddy perks of working behind the checkout desk was having the inside track on new books that came into the library.  In those pre-Internet days, patrons could reserve books in advance by telling us to write their names in pencil on a piece of paper and keep it on file.  Many books had long waiting lists even before they hit the bestseller lists.
       In 1974, I started hearing talk of a new book about a shark.  It was supposed to be "kinda scary."
       The book was Jaws.  The author was Peter Benchley.  And I was about to have one of those landmark reading moments (I’m tempted to call it a “bookmark moment”) where external events play just as big a part of the reading experience as the internal absorption of the book’s words.
       Scuttlebutt around the circulation desk was that this was the book to read.  The older librarians looked down at me, the 11-year-old, under-aged, wide-eyed book-shelver standing there. “Probably too scary for you, David.”  What they really meant was, “Probably too adult for you, David.”  (What they didn't know is that I'd long ago dog-eared all the dirty parts in The Other Side of Midnight).  Their supposedly mature perspective only served to inflame my desire to read Jaws.  I grabbed a pencil and the waiting list. My heart sank. There were already fifteen names on it.  Fifteen multiplied by the two-week borrowing period, allowing for an extra six days of overdues from lazy patrons….it added up to 216 days.  Nearly eight months until I could get my hands on Jaws!
       I just had to read this book.  I couldn’t wait.  I looked left.  I looked right. The coast was clear.  I erased the name at the top of the list (one “Mrs. Timothy Belknap”) and scribbled mine in its place.  I had just enough time to put Mrs. Timothy Belknap at the bottom of the waiting list before the head librarian returned from her cigarette break.  I whistled nonchalantly, grabbed the stack of ready-to-be-shelved books and ambled off to the Fiction Room.
       Am I proud of my library crime?  No.  Do I have regrets?  Absolutely not.  Jaws was well worth waiting for, Mrs. Timothy Belknap be damned.
       A few nights later, I was checking-in books when a tall man with thinning hair walked up and dropped off three books he’d just finished reading.  He caught my eye, gave a mock shudder, then pointed a trembly finger at one of them and said, “Scared the bejabbers outta me.”  I looked down and there it was: a simple black cover with a tiny gray figure swimming underneath four bone-white letters: JAWS.  My heart ka-thumped up to my throat.
       “Kinda scary, huh?” I asked the man.
       He shuddered again, then leaned across the desk and said in a husky voice, “It’s just a good thing we’re not near the ocean or I’d be pitching fits right about now.”
       I gulped.  I was starting to think I was in water over my head.
       The rest of the night, I could think of nothing but that tiny gray swimmer and those glaring, white letters.  I shelved the books aimlessly, too distracted to make sure the Dewey decimals were correct.  By the time we closed the library doors and I had Jaws tucked under my arm for the walk home, I was a shaking like a palsied old man.  It was part dread, part anticipation and part thrill that I was reading such an adult book.  After all, it had only been a couple of years since I’d stopped carrying a “Flipper” lunch box to school.
       Here comes the bookmark event of my life (cue the ominous, John Williams soundtrack):  As soon as I got home, I started drawing a bath.  I did this without thinking.  Evening baths were my habit even back then in the days of pouring capfuls of Mr. Bubble under the faucet.  On this night in 1974, I undressed quickly, stepped into the warm water, grabbed my hard-earned copy of Jaws and started reading.
       The woman continued to swim away from the beach, stopping now and then to check her position by the lights shining from the house….
       The fish recognized prey.  The sweeps of its tail quickened, thrusting the giant body forward with a speed that agitated the tiny phosphorescent animals in the water and caused them to glow, casting a mantle of sparks over the fish….
       At first, the woman thought she had snagged her leg on a rock or a piece of floating wood.  There was no initial pain, only one violent tug on her right leg.  She reached down to touch her foot, treading water with her left leg to keep her head up, feeling in the blackness with her left hand.  She could not find her foot.  She reached higher on her leg, and then she was overcome by a rush of nausea and dizziness.  Her groping fingers had found a nub of bone and tattered flesh.  She knew that the warm, pulsing flow over her fingers in the chill water was her own blood. Pain and panic struck together.  The woman threw her head back and screamed a guttural cry of terror.
       My mouth hung open.  My fingers were cold, drained of blood.  My heart hammered like an angry carpenter.  The water in the tub overflowed, trickled to the bathroom floor.  It made a sound like tiny biting teeth.  I jumped out of the water as if electrocuted.  I caught my balance, then stared at the words on the page again.
       The fish, with the woman’s body in its mouth, smashed down on the water with a thunderous splash, spewing foam and blood and phosphorescence in a gaudy shower.
       “Never again,” I moaned. “Never again will I read in the bathtub.”

Well of course I've had tens of thousands of baths since then (except during that one, long bath-less year in Iraq) and my reading-in-water psyche remains relatively unscarred.  For my Bathtub Book, I generally choose something that can withstand a few drops of splashed-up water.**  So, the Kindle is definitely out of the picture here.  By their nature, baths are a sort of return-to-the-womb experience anyway--remember waaay back to when you floated in amniotic bliss?--and I love to curl up in water with a good seaworthy piece of fiction.  Once, I even read Moby-Dick while bathing.

Current Bathtub Book:  600 Hours of Edward by Craig Lancaster

My Nodding-Off-To-Sleep Book
       Generally, this is the same as the Bathtub Book.  It used to be an e-book, but after one-too-many times of actually nodding off and feeling the Kindle start to slip from my suddenly-slack fingers (and jerking awake just in time to prevent the device from crashing to the bedroom floor), I decided to make this a sturdy "old-fashioned" book.  Typically, I don't get very far in this segment of my reading day.  When I say "nodding off" I really mean nodding off.  With all the reading I've done over the course of the day, I'm plum tuckered out by this point.

 *How bad could it possibly be, you ask?  Judge for yourself:

If you haven’t guessed by now, my relationship with Mary Catherine was more than merely professional.  Not that much more, but who knew where it was heading?  Not me, that was for sure.  Mary Catherine was a nice-looking female.  I, of course, was a handsome gentleman.  We were both hetero.  Add vacation and cramped quarters, and trouble was bound to happen. At least, that’s what I was kind of hoping.

**Let's have a moment of silence for the Penguin paperback edition of The Ambassadors by Henry James which, due to its weight and my buttery fingers, slipped from my grasp and plunged to a drowning death one night in 1992.  After un-baptizing the book, drying the pages, and reading the rest of the warped book, I concluded two things: 1) I hate Henry James and 2) I should have let the damned thing stay underwater until it disintegrated.


  1. Did you ever have one of those bathtub caddies? Reached across the tub with a cup holder and a lip to rest your book on. Priceless...

  2. I love that you reach for fiction "like a chain smoker rolling out of bed."