It's Just Like Riding A Book

One of my earliest, clearest memories is sitting down, book in hand, and reading. It was Richard Scarry's Busytown and the name "Lowly" confounded me. What kind of name is that? How do you say it? In my mind, I have never not known how to read. It came naturally, just like walking and talking.

Lowly wasn't the only bookworm. I was right there, too. Devouring tomes from the library, from my ever-expanding bookshelves at home and those at school. I read whatever I could get my hands and eyes on...even the musty, outdated Encyclopedia Britannica set we had in the basement.

I remember being so stoked for the annual MS Readathon. This was back in the Stone Age, remember, when everything was done via snail mail and when that packet arrived in our mailbox I'd rip it open, grab a pen and start canvassing the neighborhood for pledges.

It was 5th grade, I was ten years old and we were living in a brand new neighborhood. My parents had been divorced for a couple of years by then, and my mom and her new husband had bought a little house in St Louis Park, Minnesota. My already-bookish tendencies were becoming deeper and bookier thanks to the discovery that the new stepdad was a real 'hands-on' kinda guy. When everything you do, including breathing, has the potential to set someone off you learn pretty quickly to try and disappear, to fade into the woodwork so as not to draw attention to yourself. Books, more than ever, became my escape. The portal to places safe and less scary. Or, in the case of the Stephen King novels I discovered that year, places with even more terrifying citizens- which was oddly comforting.

After all, would you rather be dealing with the meaty fists of a mentally deranged mere mortal, or a teenage vampire hovering outside your bedroom window?

Back to the Read-a-thon. If you're not familiar with the premise: kids had a month to read as many books as they could, which they'd record in a folder from the MS Society. Prior to that, they'd go around and gather signatures and pledges from family and friends and neighbors...people usually pledged a nickel or a quarter per book. Sometimes you'd get a real high roller who'd go up to a buck. All the money raised went to the MS Society. So, the month began and I dove in, rarely coming up for air and when I did it was to mark another book on my list and to grab a new one. I read 55 books that month and when it came time to collect my pledges, people were astounded. "Wow!" and "Great job!" and then, from one nasty old coot, "Liar." I was standing there, on her front stoop, my collection-gear at the ready: my reading log covered in the titles and author names and number of pages in my hand and the collection envelope provided by the MS Society. I'd given her my results and explained how much her pledge amount came to and "we take cash or checks, ma'am". Again, she said: "Liar. How dare you say you've read that many books! I don't believe you. I'm not paying." The screen door she slammed in my face was decorated with scrolled aluminum curlicues, which I looked at while quietly stating, "But, I did."

I'd been book-shamed!

That didn't deter me, however, it only taught me that even kindly looking matronly ladies could be dicks. Later that year I received a letter from the MS Society informing me that I'd read the most books in my age group, along with two complimentary tickets to ValleyFair, a nearby amusement park. Suck it, mean lady.

As I grew older, the reading continued and eventually I began writing, too. When I was in the 6th grade the Star-Tribune, official newspaper of Minneapolis/St.Paul, announced that they were starting a weekly pull-out section. It was called The Smile Factory and it was a mini-paper for, and by, kids. I was hired as a reporter and contributor and it was the first time someone paid me for my words. Writing became second nature to me, and in the pre-computer days I filled up journals and notebooks with handwritten ramblings. Of course once Al Gore and his Interweb came along, I set up shop here.

I went through reading phases: poetry, Oprah's picks, historical autobiographies, self-help. Eventually I ended up married with kids and it became my job to instill a love of books into my soft and impressionable babies. Which I did, and succeeded. All the while, I still read. Not at the pace of my youth, of course. Who has time in the midst of homemaking? But the nightstand always held at least one book and when there was energy and quiet, I'd read.

Then, the divorce happened. And just like that, it seemed as though the reader in me died.

Actually, a lot in me felt dead then. It was the equivalent of a deforestation, a clear-cutting of my soul. When you go into survival mode, the tiny luxuries of your past life fall by the wayside and your vision becomes tunneled. I had one goal, and that was to make sure my kids had what they needed. When I wasn't with them or working or sleeping or crying in the shower, I was burying my head in the soothing sands of coping, of getting by, of making it to the next minute/hour/day/week/month/year. Reading was replaced by mindless Netflix binges, nights out (or in) with friends, wine and food being gobbled up instead of words. The old me no longer existed and for a long, long time I didn't crack a book.

But like those decimated forests, the old me wasn't really dead. It was just sleeping. And slowly, as the pieces of our lives started falling into their new places and the matter of the kids and I surviving was no longer up for debate, it woke up. It's almost as if something inside of me switched off in order to conserve power, like the SuperSaver switch on our air conditioning unit. Somehow I knew that for me, reading a book was a little bit like falling in love- and I didn't have it in me to do that.

The ALL CLEAR finally sounded and old me tentatively peeked out...checking to see if it was safe. One book at a time- page by page and chapter by chapter- I came alive again. I had forgotten what it felt like to get lost in another world, to let someone else tell their tale and take me by the hand as we traversed the roads they'd been on. I found my reading spot, which is our porch, and although I now either have to wear my drugstore readers or else take out my contacts in order to see the print on the page it's just as easy as it ever was to submerge myself into those pools of prose and float, peacefully.

I knew I was back when I found myself sobbing, as softly as I could, one night. Over something in a book instead of something in my life. 

This has been my summer of reading. My summer job is a lot like my school year job (secretary) except this summer we are in a different location and there is nothing for me to do aside from help the occasional walk-ins with enrollment questions and to buzz the door open for the summer school families. At first I killed the time by perusing Amazon but after I found a 2 lb bag of Gimbal's gluten-free licorice in our mailbox I knew there had to be a better and less-fattening way to while away the hours.

It all started with a battered copy of Where'd You Go, Bernadette which was languishing in the staff lounge and went from there. I dug out a Jodi Picoult book from the back seat of my car, pried off the grape Jolly Rancher that had adhered to the page edges and ate it up (the book, not the candy- gross!). A lovely parent at school loaned me her copy of The Widow. A blogger friend wrote a steamy novel, Beyond the Break and much to my lonely libido's dismay, I read it. My daughter and I hit the thrift store one day and there was a Jennifer Weiner book I'd somehow never read, Wild by Cheryl Strayed and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

You wouldn't believe how many pages you can get through when you're tethered to a desk and all the fun websites are blocked (about 250 pages if you really want to know, figuring in lunch and bathroom breaks and the aforementioned "work").

Next week, it's back to the normal grind: back to school time means a crazy-busy couple of weeks for those of us in the office. I'll be losing this forced quiet time, these rare and beautiful hours with nothing to do but bounce on my ball-chair, greet people and let myself get lost in someone's story.

I won't stop reading, though. Not this time.


  1. Hi Jen! Great post! I find reading helps a lot especially when life sucks! It's saved me a number of times! It's hard to do sometimes when you are tired at night but so worth it!!!

    1. Thanks so much anonymous :) I agree. That old bedtime habit of mindlessly scrolling through facebook and instagram and all of those other time-suckers is slowly giving way to "just one more page". It's a good thing!

    2. I'm so glad you're back! I'm so glad you've rediscovered reading! I love the metaphor about the deforestation. Desk jobs can be good for some things!
      Thanks for letting us know about your new adventures. Sending you good vibes as you rev up into school mode!

  2. I was also a childhood bookworm/reader overachiever ;-) who went through a similar drought when my son was young. It wasn't just dealing with an infant/toddler/preschooler/grade-schooler but also his high needs/special needs that sucked nearly all the life out of me. I tried to keep reading as stress relief, but I couldn't remember what was happening in any book that I picked up. If I had free time, I napped or watched something mindless on TV. (HGTV was my drug of choice.) Gradually, as he became more self-sufficient, I began reading again. I now read about 2 books per week, and it's heavenly. I also only read library books, so if I'm not loving something, I just take it back, guilt-free. You should try "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr or anything by Liane Moriarty and JoJo Moyes, those are the fiction books I have enjoyed the most in the last few years. I love your blog and your Facebook page. Your pal in Seattle, Lilypad.

    1. Aww Lilypad, thank you so much for this! HGTV was a huge crutch for me, too, back in the zombie days. (at one point I was convinced being a house flipper was the right thing for me, ha!!!)

      I will add your suggestions to my rapidly-growing list of "TO READ". I love you guys, for so many reasons but so much so because of all the incredible recommendations I've been getting!



  3. I loved this, so glad you got back into reading. I know when my son was born I stopped for awhile. Now I can't fall asleep without reading a few pages. Maybe one day I'll be reading your book, based on this blog:)

    1. Ahhhh! Melissa! Maybe....

      Thanks for your sweet words.

  4. Happy new blog post Jen! Reading has always been my go-to hiding place so I kept reading through the marriage/infidelity/divorce disaster because it let me slip away from the awful realities for awhile. But I only read "safe" books for a long time; things that I read before and knew didn't have sex scenes or love scenes which were equally traumatic in their own way. I can read most anything now but I still tend to cry ugly snot tears when I read something about tenderness, emotional intimacy, or really hot lovemaking. Sigh...

    1. Thank you Beth! Augh, I know exactly what you mean about the "feelings" thing. I read one book, "If Only You Knew" which dealt with infidelity and man did it nudge some icky memories.

      The Cheryl Strayed book made me cry (ugly snot tears, LMAO) in many parts. A lot of my friends didn't like that one but I ended up loving it.

      Thanks so much for being here!

  5. I grew up in the '70s in a quiet suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. My brother and I were the only Asians in the school and my family the only Asians in the neighborhood (side note: I loved your post about your adopted Korean brother.) I was tortured and bullied verbally and physically everyday, throughout the day by my school peers because of course, it was "ok" back then (The Civil Rights Movement was in its infancy) Every adult at the school looked the other way, sometimes they participated in the harassment. My parents both worked long days and nights to make ends meet. My brother and I were the original latchkey kids. There was no one to notice or care... And then I discovered Books!!! I always loved reading, but this was different, I could escape! And yes I also read the Encyclopedia Britannica (loved that you mentioned that in your post :) and at 10, I started to write, which lead to entering contests and winning ('cause you couldn't see the color of my skin ;) Essays, articles, and a movie (in 1978 about conserving energy... who knew??) and like you Jenny... My confidence grew!! I became the newspaper editor in middle school, then high school and I just knew that writing was my path, my passion... Fast forward to a 28 year old with 2 kids and husband who spends more money on pipe dreams monthly than he could ever make in a year, identity theft by the same husband and substance abuse. I gave up reading and writing and my dreams to focus on a practical career that paid for stability... Cars, a mortgage , college for the kids, a retirement plan etc. and 20 years into my marriage I said goodbye to him... And I still work, and work and work and there is no time for indulging in feeling sad about what I could have been, how many moments with my children I know missed, the money I paid to him because I was the major breadwinner, the friendships that don't get the attention they deserve because of looming deadlines and responsibilities. There is, as you know, no time for reading when you work 12 hour days and you are the primary parent... But the hope those books instilled in me 40 years ago, it stays with me... I know in my lifetime there will be a second chapter... And I can't wait to see how this story, my story will continue to unfold... :)

    1. Hi Cleveland!!! Long time no see :)

      I love this comment so much. You should not have been treated like that, it is absolutely shameful that people in "our" generation know what such ugly hate and discrimination feels like.

      And dang, A MOVIE? You go girl! That's so cool.

      It breaks my heart to hear how many of us cast aside our passions in order to keep our various ships afloat. You don't hear about men doing this on a regular basis, and yet, here we all are. To quote every kid, ever: IT'S NOT FAIR.

      Here is to all of us getting our beautiful second chapters.

  6. I was raised a reader. I loved going to the library in Stillwater. OK knowing there was a whole different world out there for me to explore. I traded books for teen crap but later a neighbor gave me Sidney Sheldon's Rage of Angels and I was hooked again! Now I read every night for quite awhile. If you love Jody Picoult look at Diane Chamberlin. I just discovered her. I am very new to your blog, just found it yesterday. When you google hurt from husbands, you do come up! If you do not know about Lysa Terkeurt brand new book Uninvited. Run and get it NOW!!! It is all bout dealing with rejection, in any relationship. WOW. How does a famous author/speaker/woman of faith know exactly my feelings in a small town in Texas? I am in the process of leaving a 30yr marriage due to rejection. The book is helping me so much. It is painful as hell. I am thrilled I found your blog! You are a wonderful writer and I am enjoying it. Go Vote! ❤️ Robin in Texas

  7. Love this!! I totally remember book-a-thons! I was a huge reader - which for me continued after the divorce. In fact it was always my happy place. And yup, I cried my feelings through many a books. Just visiting, I feel as though we've probably crossed paths. :) Alisa


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