My mother is an obsessive reader. She finishes every novel she starts even if she despises it after the first few pages. She used to try to read all the novels in alphabetical order on the shelves of our local library, and succeeded for a short time to escape from the A section. When she had gone a few books into the Bs, however, she noticed that the library had added new authors in the As, and she returned to them out of some need for literary completion. She eventually abandoned her quest and began to buy piles of books at a local church festival. I contributed to her addiction on her birthday, Mother’s Day and on Christmas by sending her novels, memoirs and books on fashion. Friends and fellow obsessed readers have lent her additional books, and she always has ten or fifteen in her queue. She’s often said to me that she doesn’t know how some people get along without books. They are tools of survival for her, and she uses them as escape pods when her life gets difficult.
I read a lot when I was a kid and got the reputation for being a bookish nerd. I played basketball on our school team in middle school, and was mocked for buying a biography about Connie Hawkins. My classmates thought that I was trying to learn how to play better by reading instead of practicing. I had a bookshelf in my room, and when a couple of guys came over for a visit they refused to believe that I owned and had read the fifteen or twenty novels on display. I didn’t tell them that my Mom and Grandpa Reger had gotten me hooked at an early age on novels by Booth Tarkington, Mark Twain and Kenneth Roberts. I had read hundreds of books by the time I hit eighth grade.
I’ve been an artist since the 1980s and am thoroughly aware of the ins and outs of creating visual art. I got used to the mental and physical struggles that came with painting a landscape, a portrait, a still life. One of the plagues of doing such work is that my mind is free to roam at will as I apply my brushstrokes. Subconscious crap rises to the top while I’m adding layer after layer of paint, and sometimes I’m busy battling enemies from long ago while also trying to figure out the shape and color of a model’s nose. The background noise gets very loud and disruptive sometimes, and I dread going to my studio on days when I know that I’ve got plenty of mental garbage stored up. I’ll sift and sort through memories, consider present difficulties, and worry about the future as the painting creeps along to the finishing line. I’m like a marathon runner dragging bags of sand behind him as he tries to keep moving forward.
I began to write short stories, plays and novels about ten years ago as an alternative means of being creative. When I’m writing I get lost in a world of imagination. Characters and scenes take on an intense life in my mind, and there’s no space for my inner demons and trivial concerns to jump out of their hiding places and jabber at me. For a time I can escape the prison of my preconceptions, obsessions and self-delusion. I still paint, but can no longer claim that it is my favorite means of self-expression.
I read little when my kids were young, but books have become important to me once again now that I have a bit more free time. I read a novel and enter a world that is not tainted by me. I’m choosier than my mother, however, and only stick with novels that feel amenable. Sometimes the attraction is based on plot, on interesting characters, or on rich language. I’m a sucker for a redemption story (not religious redemption, but personal redemption) and hate novels that are slow motion train wrecks. I love “Nobody’s Fool” by Richard Russo. The main character, Sully, struggles to come to terms with his life and the influence of his abusive father. He wins out, unexpectedly at the end, over crushing difficulties. I hate “Children of a Lesser God” by Arundhati Roy. She telegraphs a tragic ending from nearly the first page, and makes the reader wait a long time until the desperate moment finally arrives. This book reminds me of childhood visits to a dentist who never used Novocaine. I had plenty of time to dread the inevitable in Dr. Roley’s waiting room as I listened to a drill drone on and on while his victims whimpered in pain.
I have lots to do in the concrete world around me, and can’t afford to live in the land of imagination constantly. But there are days when I’m in the middle of an excellent book and it’s difficult to disengage to go to work or do household chores. I feel like a deep sea diver who must slowly rise to the surface in slow stages. For ten or fifteen minutes after closing a book I live in a world that’s tinted with the colors and emotions of the printed page. I see things through an author colored lens. The full weight of duties and responsibilities eventually presses down on me again, and it’s a sad moment when the glow of an alternative light fades away.