Thursday, June 28, 2007

Desperation Reading

People who know me also know that I like to bitch and whine about my bookstore and library situation in Korea. True, it's not a perfect bookworm world, but I'm far from desperate. Luckily, my hunting-and-gathering instincts kicked in smartly as soon as I arrived here 2.5 years ago with 5 books, and I now have somewhere between 100-200 books, many of them TBRs.

My true desperation reading story took place many years ago, in July of 1984. My parents were stationed in Hawaii, and I went to visit them. Inexplicably, I packed only two books:

1. In Love & Trouble, a book of short stories by Alice Walker (which I'd already started)
2. Dr. Spock's Baby And Child Care.

"Those are the only two books you're taking?" Manfred, Sr. asked, puzzled. "Aren't you worried you'll run out of reading material?"

I scowled at him. "I know how to pack. I'm 22 years old. I don't need instructions." I was 6 months pregnant with Manfred, Jr. and my easygoing personality had gradually disappeared, just like my waistline.

Almost immediately, I had to grudgingly admit that Manfred, Sr. knew what he was talking about. For reasons I can't exactly remember, when I changed planes in San Francisco, there was a six-hour delay, giving me ample time to read the rest of the Walker book, and page through Spock's book. There was also plenty of time and opportunity to restock by visiting one of the newsstands at the airport, but I held off because I wanted to save my money "for Hawaii". When we finally boarded the plane for Honolulu, the passengers got a free movie (Splash) to make up for the delay, so I didn't suffer too much for the remainder of the trip.

In the days that followed, I was busy seeing the sights and going to the beach as often as possible. My mother had plenty of women's magazines lying around the house, and I devoured all of those. I wasn't finished with Dr. Spock, but I was starting to get a little overwhelmed: I can't remember all of these symptoms and diseases! I'm going to be a terrrible mother! (A few months later, it would magically occur to me that Dr. Spock was a reference book.)

I began to prowl around the house, looking for books. In the living room, I found the family Bible, which was large and cumbersome with tissue-thin pages and insect print. I read the story of the Nativity in Matthew.

"Where are the encyclopedias?" I asked my mother.

"In storage. We figured that since you weren't living here, we didn't need them out taking up space and collecting dust." I was the only one who ever read those things. I was, and am, a rabid bookworm in a family of non-readers. One of the great mysteries of my life is: How the hell did they end up with me?

Things were going progressively pear-shaped, as far as my needs as a bookworm went. No one seemed to know exactly where the base library was, and didn't seem interested in scouting it out. At the BX, there was only one area of interest to my mother: the baby clothes and accessories. Impending grandmotherhood gave her a whole new reason to subcumb to compulsive shopping without regrets.

Meanwhile, with something akin to Peter Parker's "spider-sense", I could feel books somewhere in that store; they seemed to tremble just beyond the edges of my peripheral vision. I stood dutifully at the racks with my mother pretending to be interested in yellow sleepers and cute bibs and a high chair with wheels, but I felt like I was being tortured. This kid's still got three friggin' months before he'll/she'll need that sleeper. I need a book NOW!

One evening, ten days into the visit, Mom was at work, my younger brother was on a date and Dad was asleep in his chair in front of the TV. I was sick to death of TV. Screw Dynasty! Why were these people who professed to love me trying to kill me? Hadn't I been a good daughter, for the most part? I needed something to read! There had to be something somewhere!

I hauled myself to my feet and lumbered down the hallway to the storage closet and opened the door. Mountains of boxes filled the small space. Way at the back near the top was a box marked BOOKS. The encyclopedias, perhaps. I'd ration myself to one a day. Anyway, I'd really, really try.

I started climbing on the boxes, making a huge racket as I shoved Christmas decorations out of the way. Finally, I had my hands on the box I wanted. Oh, crap, it was heavy. I sneezed. Dusty, too. Bit by bit, I inched myself and the box out of the closet and into the hallway again. The air-conditioning felt good; I'd been sweating like there was a tap installed under my maternity clothes.

Someone had gone crazy with the packing tape. Were they trying to mummify the damn box? Not wanting to take the time to find a knife or scissors, I scratched up a tape edge with my longest fingernail and started peeling it off in a frenzy. Finally, I parted the cardboard flaps and peered inside. Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Those hated things! My eyes filled with tears. In my entire life, before or since, I can't recall feeling so grateful to see books.

I carried a few back to my room and shoved them under the bed within reach, like a dog burying a bone, then fell on the bed with a satisfied sigh. I felt like I was the heroine of my own life.


John Mutford said...

Have you ever felt the need to go back and reread the originals of those condensed books? I've never read one but my dad had a few of them hanging around. I remember reading a Reader's Digest copy of Moby Dick. It wasn't a condensed book; they had published a bunch of public domain books and left them in tact. Still, I was embarassed to be seen with it, thinking people would think I'd gone for the condensed version!

Anonymous said...

This happened to me when I was nine, when all I brought on a 2-week trip to visit my grandparents in Nebraska was a copy of Heidi. I did not find a box of books, though, and to this day I can't imagine rereading Heidi.

Sam said...

You REALLY were desperate, weren't you? :-)

I read some of those condensed versions as a kid because I had an uncle who actually subscribed to the things. They weren't so bad until I figured out what "condensed" really meant and started to wonder what I was missing. But they accumulated in my bedroom for another few years (unread) because I couldn't figure out how to nicely tell my uncle that I had "out grown" the books he liked so much (I was about 12 or 13 years old and didn't want to hurt his feelings).

Tara said...

I was feeling so TENSE as I read this post!! Thank goodness you found something to read even if it was those condensed books. I hope you picked up something at the airport for the ride home.

kookie said...

You are a great storyteller, Bybee. I'm glad you found something to read and that you learned from that experience. Never again, eh?

Lisa Jean said...

Have to laugh. I too was stuck in a vacation horror land, bookless and all the proprietors used to decorate was Readers Digest condensed books. What were they thinking? What was I thinking to stoop so low as to read a few of them? HA

Anonymous said...

Now that is a story of both desperation and redemption, Bybee!
I have to admit, I've read Reader's Digest's condensed books too before I knew any better and then occasionally afterwards because it was the only thing around. I did NOT have to go to the trouble you did though!

Bybee said...

One good thing I gotta say about Reader's Digest Condensed Books: They have often spurred me on to read "The Real Book."

I liked Heidi, but I don't know if I could do Heidi for 2 weeks!

You were so sensitive, even at an early age.

Oh yeah, I remember buying a book for the ride home, but I've forgotten what book because I lost my list for 1984.

That's right, "never again" -- for many years, packing the books has been elevated to the level of packing the toothbrush or packing the underwear.

Lisa Jean,
I've been in places that used RDCB for decor! I guess in a way they must have some kind of visual appeal with the blocks of color on the spine. I can't really see it, though.

Carrie K,
A bookworm's gotta go what a bookworm's gotta do.