I love this gif of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, which showed up on my Tumblr under the headline: “When I’m really into a book and oblivious to everything else.” It made me think of two things, which will be the two subjects of this blog post, and those are:
1) There’s more than one way to be an avid reader, and
2) Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?
First things first.
There’s more than one way to be an avid reader.
People often talk about being “lost in a book” to the degree that they’re oblivious to the world around them, which to me sometimes gives the impression that if you’re not absorbed in reading to the degree that your house could be bombed and you’d fail to glance up from the page, you’re not a truly dedicated reader.
True confession: I have never been this kind of reader. I love books; I love to read, but I don’t get “lost” in books in this way. When I’m reading, I’m easily distracted by anything else that happens in the room or even in the next room. There are a lot of situations where I can’t and won’t read: I can’t read in a car or any moving vehicle; I find it hard to read outdoors unless conditions are absolutely perfect because I’m easily distracted by uncomfortable seating, wind, bugs, or sunlight striking the page at the wrong angle. Unlike Belle in this scene, I also cannot read while walking — that level of concentration on a book would be impossible for me. (In fact, it’s impossible for almost everyone who isn’t a cartoon character. In real life you very rarely see people reading while walking, which seems obvious, until you get to my point #2).
But that’s OK. It’s still pretty clear, if you look at how much I read and how much I love it, that I am a Compulsive Overreader. Just like I said in my last video that you don’t have to read the same books everyone else thinks are great if they’re not for you, you also don’t have to read in the same way that someone else reads, or someone else says you should read. Being oblivious to the world is not a prerequisite for being an avid reader.
Thinking about this reminds me of a funny story, though it’s not nearly as funny as some people think it is …
Memory is a funny thing, isn’t it?
As almost everyone knows by now, what we think we remember may not be what actually happened. Two people can have different memories of the exact same event. Memories can be conflated and changed as a story gets retold over time.
One day when I was about eleven or twelve, I was at summer camp. I was always awkward and introverted at summer camp — introverted in my special, fun way where I get to sound really loudmouthed and confident while actually not feeling comfortable with anyone. And I wasn’t a good swimmer and I couldn’t water-ski at all, so the waterfront recreation time at camp was particularly tortuous for me. On this particular day I was amusing myself, very mildly, by trying to jump from one rock to another in the shallow water near the dock. Predictably, since my athletic skills were as poor as my social skills, I soon slipped and fell, fully clothed, into the water, eliciting some unkind laughter and a little sympathy as I dragged my sodden self back up to my cabin to change.
That evening my parents came up for a visit. They were chatting with the camp director, who was a friend of my parents and had two daughters a bit older than me who were (presumably, though I don’t specifically remember them there) also at camp at the time. I told my folks about falling in the pond, and the camp director said in this jolly adult-joshing-kids sort of way, “Knowing Trudy, I would have expected she had her nose in a book and just walked right off the edge of the wharf.” And everyone had a good laugh (except me, because kids, especially painfully shy ones, almost never find it funny when adults make those kind of jokes about them, but whatever. I’ve probably done it myself to a kid without realizing it).
Incident overwith and mostly forgotten. Fast-forward nearly ten years. I am a young adult in my first teaching job, and my principal is the very same guy who was camp director when I was 12. He and his wife invite me to a meal at their house along with a bunch of other new staff members, a sort of getting-to-know-you thing. And in the process of getting to know all these new people, the principal of course mentions that he knows my family and knew me when I was a kid, and tells everyone this funny story about how when I was a kid, I was such a bookworm that one day at camp I was walking along by the pond, nose in a book, and was so absorbed in what I was reading that I didn’t notice and walked right off the end of the wharf!
Under cover of the uproarious laughter that followed, I said quietly to the one person there I considered a friend, “Isn’t that a great story? So great, I almost wish it had really happened.”
It was sort of amazing — his off-the-cuff joke about how it could have happened had somehow morphed into a memory that it actually had happened that way. He was so sure of his story I’d almost have doubted my own memory of the event, if I hadn’t known myself well enough to know that I had never, and would never, be able to attempt to (or even want to) read and walk at the same time.
I never corrected him though — and I have actually had other members of his family repeat the same story to and about me in the years since, and I never say anything (well, I guess I’m saying it now, but correcting those specific people is not really the point here). He loved the story — they all did — and to them it said something essential about their understanding of me: that I was such an avid reader that I could be engrossed in a book to the point of not noticing I was walking off a wharf. I didn’t want to get into an argument about my memory of an event that had happened to me versus their memory of an event they hadn’t even witnessed (though in later years they were sure they had).
I knew it hadn’t happened like that; furthermore, I knew it couldn’t have happened like that, because I’ve never been that absorbed in a book in my life, and (as noted above) I have never tried to walk while reading, much less on a wharf leading into a pond. (Full disclosure: I did once run straight into a concrete telephone pole, but I wasn’t reading then either; I had turned my head to talk to the person I was running with).
I am an avid (though not deeply absorbed) reader; I am also clumsy and accident-prone. It’s kind of natural that a person who knows me a little bit, but not very well, would combine those two qualities into a funny story and eventually come to believe they saw it happen, even though it never did.
But it does make me very suspicious of memory. It’s a bit like all those old folks in England who swear they heard Churchill giving his “We shall fight them on the beaches…” speech on the radio during World War Two, when in fact the speech was given in Parliament and never recorded or broadcast during the war years. Things like this remind me that just because I think I remember hearing or seeing something, I can’t always trust my own memory of events, nor anyone else’s. Memories are just as much created as recorded and recalled — which is a bit scary, actually.