The clock ticks rhythmically, sleepily. From down the hall, muted voices murmur, warm and fuzzy like the blankets that envelop me, that drag me into slumber, as my eyelids close – no! I fumble for the lamp switch, and a creamy glow brightens my room. White in the chilly night air, my tiny toes wiggle out from under the quilt, sink into the carpet, and pad across the floor. I’m not going to sleep just yet.
I kneel before the two shelves in the corner of my room. Which book will I read tonight? Across the golden cover of a fairy tale treasury, Peter Rabbit and Rumpelstiltskin march to some far-off land of adventure. I lift the book from the shelf, but, like a slippery fish, it escapes my little arms, thumping to the ground. I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear the story of “Thumbelina.”
I need to find a thinner book. How about this one? There’s a boy with an oversized head, a quirky grin, straw-colored hair—Dad calls this book The Remarkable Farkle McBride.
I wriggle into my closet and curl up on a pillow, secured between two walls and a hamper. My parents’ voices fade and fall silent as I open the book. There’s Farkle, standing amidst a barrage of falling musical instruments. That mahogany-colored curvy thing (a vy-oh-LIN, I am told) trills: “Reedle-ee Deedle-ee Deedle-ee Dee.” The humongous brown drum thunders: “Boom Bash Clang-a-ma Clash!” My daddy’s voice accompanies each picture, intoning rhythms. Turning the last page, I yawn, eyes fluttering closed. As my head slumps to meet the page, I smile.
“Daddy, Daddy!” I pound down the hall and shove Little House in the Big Woods into his hands. “We need to read this one!” His eyes brighten; we both share this favorite pastime. “Ok,” he laughs, “Just let me find my glasses.”
I plop onto the couch and, knees hugged to my chest, watch over Dad’s shoulder as he lifts the cover and reads. Words flit around in my head; I imagine the Ingalls family making maple syrup and fending off black panthers. Tomorrow I’ll be Laura Ingalls Wilder, I muse. And my blond-haired little brother will be baby Carrie.
“That’s the end of the chapter.”
“One more, please!” I cheer for an encore, longing for the symphony of words to ring on.
“No, it’s bedtime now. You can look forward to more tomorrow.”
J.R.R. Tolkien drones on and on, and my gaze drifts from the pages. Nesting in the Morris chair, I watch rusty leaves dance in the street, blown by the screaming wind. The house creaks. Wrapping my knit shawl around my shoulders, I close my eyes, lean my head back against the chair, and sigh.
A month earlier, I started the chapter entitled “The Council of Elrond.” Tolkien claims that “Not all that was spoken and debated in the Council need now be told,” but somehow, I don’t think he holds anything back. It seems the history of every race in Middle Earth must be analyzed in detail. Each mention of “Iarwain,” “Argonath,” and “Isildar’s Bane” threatens to snap the cords of concentration in my mind. Even so, I’ll finish this book, as well as The Two Towers and The Return of the King. I’ll earn my bragging rights. Besides, I won’t be allowed to watch the movies, with all their action-packed intensity, until I finish the books.
Sipping from mugs of steamy black coffee, my mom and dad recline in their twin arm chairs. I slouch into the room, dragging my feet and scowling.
“I’m boooored!” I grumble, and Mom cocks an eyebrow. Dad grins. “Read a book.” I groan. “Yeah, but what should I read?” They think for a few minutes, and then Mom makes a suggestion. “How about the Harry Potter series? I really love how J.K. Rowling develops her plot.” I’ve seen these books on our shelves before, in their motley-colored bindings, and wondered what’s within them. Now I’ll find out.
Inhaling gulps of clear air, I scale the ladder to my tree fort, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in hand. Snuggled up in the furthest corner, I’m sheltered from the wind and hidden from observing eyes.
“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, … were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious…”
Suddenly, I’m back in the closet, captivated by the words of a page. Dusk falls, and I return to the house, where I sprawl on my bed, overturning each page, unearthing every plot twist, then lie awake, contemplating the conclusion. The conclusion… What will I do when this series ends?
Pushing through the library doors, I enter the room reserved for our literature class. I remove Uncle Tom’s Cabin from my backpack and crack open its pages. Polychromatic highlighter marks smother the text, and scrunched scribblings reveal things like a “correlation between theme of freedom and symbolism of home.” The quiet, obedient Uncle Tom, the delicate Evangeline, the headstrong George Harris—their characters mesh and flow into one thematic story. The author beckons me into an exploration of race, of slavery, of human worth. I stride across an open frontier of ideas.
“Who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” The caregiver reads the trivia question, and glances around the circle, first at the elderly women, then at my friends and me, volunteers at the assisted living home. The ladies mumble, “Well, it’s been a long time since that one…” When no one is forthcoming, I timidly raise my hand.
“Harriet Beecher Stowe.”
“Ah, that’s right! My, I’d forgotten all about that one! Smart girl, there.”
The corners of my lips creep upward, and I look down at my hands, clasping an invisible book, feeling the phantom weight of its 515 pages. Solid. Impressive. My brow creases.
The fire puffs behind the hearth, wheezing, fighting to withstand the icy blasts howling down the chimney. I have dragged my furry leopard-print bean bag chair to the middle of our living room and sit reading Les Misérables. Cheeks flushed red, my brother and his friends troop up the stairs, lugging their airsoft sniper rifles and pistols. I glance up as my mom hands me a coffee mug. “Just keep plugging away, Nora.” I return her sympathetic smile, and blaze through a paragraph.
I recall the cashier’s surprise when I bought the book. “You’re going to read this?” “I think so,” I blushed. “Wow, good for you. It’s a tough one.” Hours later, I started reading, then put the book down for months, lacking the will power to endure Hugo’s long-winded expositions. Today I pick it back up again, and sludge through a language quagmire.
The fire is now only ashes, and everyone else in my family has gone to bed. I insert my thumb between pages 1046 and 1047 and flip through the book until I find the last page before the appendixes. 1200 minus 1047… 153 pages to look forward to. My phone screen blinds me, burning the digits 11:58 into my eyeballs. Why did I choose this book in the first place? I think of the cashier’s amazed eyes, my mom’s proud ones, all the eyes that will widen when I say “I’ve read Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.”
I have finished the 1200-page monster. Why then, as I stand in front of the mirror brushing my teeth, does a tear trickle down my cheek? Why am I not satisfied?
I miss the closet. The quiet. The lull. Two walls and a hamper cloistering me away in a world of dreams, adventures, and ideas. As I began to see books as banners, stamps of my worth, I drifted from the closet. Still hungering for books, I read and read late into the night. I finish, turn out the lights, and sleep, exhausted and empty. I read to satisfy my hunger, but I starve.