You have heard it said many times, and so have I: “Oh, I love to read but I just never have the time.” I reject that statement–a false premise from the word go. Any omniverous reader will support my contention that if you are a reader, you will read–regardless of time, place, or circumstance. It is an impulse as vital and compelling as any primeval urge, and if reading material available, you will read.

As a child, reading was compulsion that kept me (as it did Abe Lincoln) sitting with my toes in the ashes of a dying fire at the fireplace long after the lamp had been blown out, and the rest of the family in bed. Red-eyed from the smoke, I leaned in, poking up dying embers in the grate to finish the last few pages by the meager flame.

That same urge sent me down a dusty back road in summer or through the snowdrifts in winter to the country store with my “lamp oil” jug in hand. Buying a dime’s worth of kerosene (coal oil) assured me of a night’s reading, when I had anything to read.

I have milked cows, tended babies, and swept floors for the privilege of getting my hands on a stack of Argosy magazines, or a tattered copy of “Moby Dick” or “Tom Sawyer” that had passed through many hands in the community before reaching mine. I have stood at my sister’s elbow, as avid as a goose after corn, waiting for her to finish a book I wanted to read. At times, I traded her a treasured possession (a stick of gum, or my bob-jacks) to start reading the book before she had finished. I didn’t often succeed, as she was also a reader. “Gone with the Wind” was one of those times; Scarlett dragging the Yankee soldier she had killed to hide him under the scuppernong vines was just too shocking to wait!

There was a “rich” lady who lived near us in the 30s, a lady who owned a Model-A Ford fresh from Detroit and speckled bird dog that wouldn’t sell for the $100 she’d been offered. She also had peanut butter and crackers for her two chubby daughters, along with graham crackers, which in my innocent eyes made both the lady and her daughters extremely rich and fortunate.

On Sunday afternoons once a month I walked through the fields to her house. She knew what I wanted. But before I could claim these printed treasures, stacked like golden bricks in the woodbox by the fire, I first had a job to perform. I liked the woman well enough, but how I hated that very personal little chore!

She stretched out in her easy chair , undid the thick braids of her long red hair coiling around her head like wintering copperheads in a nest. She handed me her heavy turquoise comb, brown and shiny with glints of gold tracing on top. Sighing, she sank back, ready to enjoy the ministrations I so dreaded. For the next hour I combed and combed, untangling the kinky red braids as she dozed. The one-hundred-dollar bird dog lay at her feet, also dozing and dreaming, snapping occasionally at imaginary flies and panting after illusory quail.

The job seemed interminable. When her breath started coming in soft little gasps, I peeped to see if she slept. Quietly, I’d start gathering up my pay–an armload of Life, Look, Pic, and Reader’s Digest–only to have her call me back to my task.

“Just a little longer, Mary. You’ll find crackers and peanut butter  on the table when you’re finished.” That added inducement kept me at my appointed task until the tedium of a lethargic Sunday afternoon almost put me to sleep, too.

In a large household (an eventual 12 children!) you never have the privacy that reading requires. I soon developed a knack of screening out interference so effectively that I could stand at the mantle under the soft, muted gleam of our one lamp and travel with Huck Finn and Jim down the Mississippi in a raft. I crept with Lew Wetzel through deep forests in Ohio, avoiding Indians, and I fought at the Alamo (always the lone survivor) –while a roomful of small siblings romped and stomped, playing cowboys and Indians at my feet. This same “tuning out” might not be so good (and that’s debatable) when carried into adulthood. Sometimes I have found myself in a room full of chattering people, realizing suddenly that I haven’t heard a word being spoken. I have an idea that the proverbial absent-minded professor was originally just a thwarted reader.

In spring, we papered the walls not with wallpaper, for that too was for “rich” people, but with newspapers. As we smeared on homemade paste made of flour and water, I was very careful to get the newspapers pasted right side up. I knew at some point I would be out of reading material, and this assured that I wouldn’t get a crick in my neck I in trying to read those newspapers upside down.

The little brown shack out back, the one with the half-moon on the door? It too was papered with newspapers, and having the added attraction of a thick Sears and Roebuck catalog to thumb through while otherwise engaged. After using a page at a time as toilet paper, the catalog and its wonderful merchandise no longer offered an excuse for lingering.

I think I may have conveyed to you what a reader is. Don’t tell me you just love to read, but . . .

Reading will out. It may even be true of readers as it is of writers and alcoholics (all too often one and the same)– that they are born, not made. A bookaholic, like an alcoholic, will find a way.

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