I realize this reading compulsion doesn't subsume most people. However it does me. When I lived in Boston or when I'm in New York and I'm traveling on the subway, I will sometimes close my book one stop before my chosen destination in the fear that I will become too engrossed in what I am reading and miss that station. (I speak from repeat experience.) However, once I know that the next stop is mine, I will reach into my bag, pull out the book and rush through a paragraph or two because I must because I know I have that much time to read at least a paragraph or two. The time it takes to unzip my bag, pull out the book, and find the page/paragraph/sentence where I left off, is longer than the spare thirty seconds I have to read, but that concerns me not. What matters are those thirty seconds of savoring what I'm reading, one paragraph closer to finding out if John Carter will rescue Thuvia (we all know he does), one sentence to finding out why David Sedaris' brother The Rooster calls it a "fuck-it bucket"; one word closer to finding out how moon-milk was discovered.
When I was in my early twenties, this compulsion leaked into my environments. I was living in a small rented room in Watertown, MA, a room with a slanted roof on the third floor of a dimly-lit, poorly ventilated apartment. When I awoke I had to be careful not to rise too quickly or I would hit my head on the ceiling. At this point in my life, I did not have many possessions: Some clothes, some CDs, a serviceable stereo, a large storage box, and a mattress. And some books. Instead of using the storage box, about the size of two dresser drawers for clothes, I used the box to store my books. My clothes I folded in a heap in the corner: they were folded but they were in a heap. The books were my priority.
When I was in high school, my science teacher would routinely ask me questions about the digestive system of a frog, or the photosynthesis of certain types of fauna. I didn't know: underneath my desk I was too busy absorbing the latest Stephen King novel, or digesting the statistics from Sports Illustrated magazines. In English class, I would be a little less inconspicuous: I would hold the newspaper open above the desk and read the articles with no pretense of hiding what I was doing. When asked the definition or spelling of one of the vocabulary words, I word answer correctly.
A couple of months ago I met a friend at the movies. I was going to get there much earlier than she was. She emailed me beforehand to ensure that I would be okay waiting as long as I would be for her. I replied, "I always have a book with me."
Last week while waiting for a friend to shower before we went to dinner, I pulled out the copy of Middlemarch I am determined to finish. I knew she would not be long in the shower, and I knew that I would not get a substantial amount read. Actually unsubstantial is a woefully inadequate word for the lack of words I would cover in the book in this scant amount of time. But, retrieve the copy of Middlemarch from my bag is what I did, and read about a half page while waiting. Why? Because I could, because even in that five minute period of time, that was five minutes of reading I had. (Did I happen to mention I was reading and book-obsessed?)
This afternoon while running back to work from an offsite shoot, I stopped at a sub shop to grab some lunch. I did not bring my bag with me on the shoot, and as such, I did not have a book with me. They also did not have the customary stack of newspapers in the sub shop or a kiosk of the free local independents. What they did have was a local weekly dedicated to the town's sports teams. Lacking anything to read, I grabbed it and flipped through the paper, learning that the Lions in the under-13 league are undefeated so far this season.
Anne Fadiman wrote in her book Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader that she once read her roommate's 1974 Toyota Corolla manual because it was the only thing in the apartment she had not read twice, and that on a hike through the Sierras with her future husband, she brought the collected books of John Muir. (Confession of this reader: I can't remember the exact essay off the top of my head and the book is presently buried in one of the many boxes of books I possess: I recently moved and have yet to unpack all of my books.)
I feel like Fadiman most of the time. Not that I would ever reach her level of erudition, but I can relate to being a compulsive, obsessive reader, and collector of books. Everywhere I go, I have a book, sometimes more than one. Regardless of the situation, I have a book. Regardless of the situation, I can always find time to read, can always find another book to buy. Wherever I am, I always seem to find my way to a bookstore or a newsstand. And through the years of living in a city or traveling to other cities, I sometimes seem to almost always miss my station, seem to just get off at the last minute, an invisible voice yelling at me at the last possible moment to close the book and dart off the subway just as the doors are about to close on me or my bag. When I dart off the train, book in hand, finger holding my place where I left off, I don't slip the book in my bag and continue on to my destination; I stop, open the book to where I had left off, and read to the end of the paragraph or to the next page break, or to the end of the chapter. I then move on to where I was heading. But, in that briefest of moments, the book, what I am reading, is what's important.