P1030600BI’ve just realized that there’s an abnormal gap in my house. Where there are normally ten or twelve library books stacked up around the living room — (with occasional escapees from the stacks making a break for random places like the floor under my bed or the passenger seat of my car) — there’s nary a library book on the loose anywhere at the moment. A month ago, I was surrounded by them, but as their due dates arrived, one by one they had to be returned, unfinished or even unopened. It just hasn’t been a normal month.

Because I’m not gobbling up full meals of entire books at a rate of two or three a week, I reflexively think something’s wrong. I think that I’m deprived. But that’s just my hasty first impression. When I take some time to really stop and think, I see that I have been reading. It’s just that I haven’t actually sat down with a book and read it from front to back. When I haven’t time to sit down to a full meal, I grab snacks and leftovers to keep my body nutrified. That’s what I’ve been doing as a reader, too. I’ve been keeping my mind fed with snacks and leftovers.

I’ve been reading just enough pages of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters to keep up with the Unputdownables book discussion. I fell behind and had to drop out of the online discussion one week, but got caught up again just in time for the next week. Fortunately, they’re reading at a slow pace, spreading the entire book out over three months, so I’ve had a chance to keep up with them.

I’ve slowed down my LibriVox reading. Fortunately, my big long-term involvement with the multi-volume Underground Railroad project has reached a temporary hiatus between volumes, so I haven’t had to drop out of a project I love. I haven’t joined any new big projects, but I’ve still managed to read a few short odds-and-ends for them — what my sister would call “one-offs” — a short lecture by a former US consul to England during the Civil War, a single orphaned chapter leftover in a John Quincy Adams biography, a short fictional portrait of a Swedish orphan girl who came to America in 1900.

One evening, my dad having run across a reference to Mike Royko’s old Chicago newspaper columns, he hunted up a volume of Royko classics and asked me to read aloud a few of our favorites for Brian’s delectation — (including a handful of the best Slats Grobnik stories, the insanely tongue-tangling picking-packing school memo, and the embarrassingly funny Avon lady episode.)

I can’t live forever on a reading diet of scraps snatched from random chapters of this’n’that, any more than I can live indefinitely on scrambled egg sandwiches and leftover chili. But in a pinch, during those occasional strange disorganized stretches of life, this is how we keep ourselves going.

If ever there should come a time when even scraps of reading are hard to come by, when I must do entirely without reading for awhile, I can understand now that I would never really be book-deprived. After all, five decades of rich steady reading have been gathering together inside me. Whatever has been sown in me by all the reading of my lifetime is now deeply rooted in my own mind and heart and personality. Even if I’m not planting any new book-seeds in this field at the moment, I can see that the field isn’t barren — it’s already thick with flowering plants and fruited trees, the harvest of years of reading. I can stroll through my remembered library garden and gather refreshment whenever I choose.

I remember my book-friends as I remember my flesh-and-blood friends. I remember life-changing things that have happened to me in books as I remember life-changing things that have happened to me in the world.  The books I’ve read and loved have made me who I am, just as much as any other strong influence in my life has done. As long as I am who I am, all my lifetime of reading is always right here with me.

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