In which a professional nerd discusses why reading upsets your mother and why it’s worth doing anyway.
When I was ten my Mom told me she would buy me all the books I would read, which I now have every reason to believe she regrets. It was great for a lot of reasons; I got something I loved and learned negotiation, which resulted in my getting two Calvin and Hobbes for each ear that I let her pierce.
At first I started small, asking for the usual Nancy Drew and Sammy Keyes, and once, for Christmas, a dog breed encyclopedia complete with glossy pictures. As an aspiring veterinarian, I obsessively memorized every type and their accompanying facts, which has enabled me to this day to identify most dog breeds on sight, and which, it turns out, most people don’t think is that cool.
Even after my allergies forced me to change career paths, my Mom and I continued to go on Barnes and Noble excursions where she would leave me in the children’s section and then park herself in Starbucks with a cuisine magazine. Once she wasn’t looking I would escape into History or Fiction or Mystery and look at all the books I wasn’t old enough to read. I would smush into the bottom row of the bookshelf, make a total nuisance of myself by denuding half the row of titles, and dream about how Oliver Twist sounded so exotic.
I would haul back stacks of five possibilities at a time that she would censor by flipping adroitly through their pages, and even a few times by taking out a black Sharpie and scrubbing certain words or whole scenes for the sake of propriety.
I still remember the rare joy of shopping with my Dad who half-heartedly performed the customary content check, but without really looking. With his help, I ended up with an historical fiction novel with so many sex scenes that for a long time I was convinced all colonists had sex bent over barrels in abandoned store rooms.
Spend your time with the books that make your mother tremble in fear
For a while my Mom spent time with me talking about books and even reading some fiction herself, but I think her tide turned against reading when I began the Harry Potter series and the Christian culture war against it broke out. My mom quizzed me about Voldemort’s use of occult magic and pried into whether or not I believed wizards were real.
I don’t know if J.K. Rowling knew what bizarre conversations she had unleashed upon the world, but after that my Mom’s suspicions about the purpose of reading only grew worse. Though she never took a book away from me, she never became comfortable with the realm of the mind, a place where her children could think anything of the world with or without her approval.
Though we could have a long conversation about the rights and wrongs of it, I understand her anxiety. It’s the same fear of every cautious parent, every conservative religion, and of every tyrant—words are the harbingers of change and can mean death to indoctrinal thinking. Books aren’t a convenient form of art ethereal enough to disappear once the pages are put away and the cover closed. Words inhabit and abide, seeking to influence your mindsets and preconceptions.
The invasion of typography into topography is the beauty and danger which constitutes the art of reading. Rather than focusing on the outward bombardment of daily living, the reader can turn inward to the intimate exchange of the author and audience who experience one another as passionately as lovers, alone and in bold conversation about any subject they choose. This studious affair is as vehement and purposeful as thinking, and allows the reader to sit at the work of another in order to be taught, transformed, and unhinged. The doors are thrown open.
Communion with ideas and their authors is a unique privilege, and this is why, I suppose, I find myself so easily moved by literature and drawn to it again and again. Pursuit of knowledge is the basis of this obsession, but I rarely find myself occupied with texts focusing on the assemblage of parts or the quantifiable mechanics of life.
The beautiful, the meaningful, the transcendent, is what, after being broken against the ax of McCarthy or wandering with Abelard or hunting truth with Hammett, brings you back to the fundamental fact that our cultural and individual identities are created by traversing these landscapes and conversing with the great artists who made them. Reading allows us access to the collective body of work that defines and moves us all.
Which leaves us with a choice. Inundated as we are by constant stimuli vying for our attention, our time and consideration are tantamount to consumption—we are what we turn our gaze to.
And though we have a myriad of options, and though the occasional clickbait video is entertaining, it’s rare that we feel nourished by such bright, flashing lights.
Spend your time with the books that make your mother tremble in fear, and dive behind the sharpied text to find whatever it is that reminds you of who you are, and who you can be, and what is beautiful.
It changes everything, and it renews the world.
Kelsey Capps is a writer and Reader in Residence at The Wild Detectives. Her short stories and reviews have been mentioned in a variety of publications including Hobo Pancakes, Literary Hub, and The Guardian, and she is finishing her second novel. You can follow her work and current reads on Instagram at @readwritethecraft.