A near-permanent fixture in the bathroom of my childhood homes was a book, usually a novel, laid on the counter, or the back of the toilet, with its spine flat, its pages splayed out, drying. My mother took a bath just about every night to help her relax, and just about every night the bath did the trick. She would climb in with her book, read a few pages, and promptly fall asleep. She would usually wake up when the book slipped out of her hands a few moments later. Hardcover and paperbacks alike, water-logged copies of many of the bestselling literary novels of the last thirty years fill the shelves of my parents’ home, a testament to my mother’s love of books, and her ceaseless fatigue.
I could not, for many years, understand the phenomenon of the dropped book, could not understand how one would go about falling asleep while reading for pleasure. As a college student, poring over complex and frequently dry texts late into the night, I, like any other student, would nod off. But never with a novel, never with something I wanted to be reading.
I experience novels, in particular, much like movies: I like to sit down and consume them, start to finish. Pauses for bathroom breaks, or to eat, or sleep, are taken reluctantly. In the midst of a story, I find the focus I can only dream about in other realms of my life. This has been the modus operandi of my reading life for as long as I can remember. It does not always work to the good. One of my clearest memories of my young self was reading Ramona the Pest on the way to my grandparents well past the onset of carsickness. We arrived; I opened the door, threw up in their driveway, and went inside to keep reading.
As with any addiction, the details are often distressing. I have been known to call into the office to finish a novel (often justifying my behavior by using the story as a sermon illustration), and to casually flip open a book in the car when halted by a passing freight train.
I use the language of addiction intentionally, but with the full knowledge that I am blessed in my drug of choice. Books have never gotten in the way of any of my relationships; they have not had a physical toll (other than my need for steadily stronger prescriptions in eyewear). I can, mostly, I think, quit any time I want to. And, in fact, I have. Not wanting my children, who already know me as a mother who leaves for work, and stays out for evening meetings far too often, to ever feel that I am preoccupied when I am with them, to ever feel that they do not have my full attention unless I absolutely have to be multi-tasking, I tend not to read around them. I read with them, to them. But I don’t dare pick up a novel or even a collection of essays when they’re around; I’m scared to risk it.
Though I find some relief in the knowledge that I have power over my addiction, I nonetheless feel starved for books, for the addictive way I used to absorb them, one, two, three a week, before I had children. The mystery of the water-logged books has been solved: you fall asleep while reading, not because you do not love books, but because you are so very, very tired. Because you can’t imagine letting the day end without at least attempting to engage a narrative, to turn a page, but you literally can’t keep your eyes open for another minute.
Other than the too brief periods of my maternity leave, during which I think I did nothing but read and nurse, a literate milk cow, my reading life has stalled since the birth of my children. I say this not with regret, but some lament. It’s not that their births have made me less curious, have sated my hunger for stories; it is simply that there is less time. Significantly less time, to wander through shelves in bookstores and libraries, to be moved by the Holy Spirit from one text to another. I still carry a book or two with me wherever I go, but unless my children are at daycare, once free moments in doctors’ offices and car repair shops are now fully occupied with keeping my children occupied.
Do not be mistaken: I am still a pretty easy-going parent, and, I hope, pretty comfortable in my ministry. But because my time seems so much more limited, I am less willing to take a chance on a book. Because there are so many tasks to accomplish during my working days, I am less likely to spend a morning, or even an hour, tucked away reading. I finish the e-mails at work, flit around the Sunday school supply room, make phone calls, design church publications and publicity during “regular office hours,” imagining that I will catch up on my reading after the girls go to sleep, or before they wake up. But I don’t. I do other good things: catch up with my husband, do the dishes. Sleep.
My bible studies, my preaching, my ministry are, however, worse for this. With reading circumscribed by time, I have lost most of the inspiration.
But not all. The inspiration I find now lies in sharing beloved stories with my older daughter, of seeing her connect to stories, of asking, begging, to be taken to the library. Of never feeling guilty for “spoiling her” with too many books. In seeing how important books are in shaping her understanding of the world, of opening her imagination to things beyond her (as yet, limited) experience, I am reminded how critical stories are to me. How I cannot be without them; how my ministry requires them.