Book It!

In the late 80s, we had Book It!, a reward system designed to get kids to read with the promise of free pizza. It’s no surprise that a program that motivated kids to read by rewarding them with Pizza Hut fell somewhat out of vogue–the fear of gluten and childhood obesity making it less enticing. But for a while, while Book It! was still thriving, I would read feverishly and then head down the road with my parents in tow to pick out the personal pan I had earned.

Pizza and books, my two great loves.

I went to graduate school to get a degree in literature, and, for a time, I was certain I had bled the joy out of reading. As though I had taken a cherished friend, strapped her to an operating table and dissected her down, only to realize I had killed the very thing I loved with all that poking and prodding.

It is the seminary student who graduates an atheist.

I didn’t read for pleasure for years after, even though I was a teacher, an English teacher no less.

Then, senior skip day happened, and there I was, a senior teacher, waiting out the day with the two seniors who either had not gotten the memo or who were too afraid of a dip in their GPA to actually do the skipping.

We traipsed down to the library for a study hall. I pulled out an essay to grade, and they applied the same half-hearted interest to their homework.

After 20 minutes or so of re-reading the same paragraph, I stood to stretch and my eyes landed on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I studied that black cover for a moment, and felt a dull throb in my temple at the thought of returning to that rambling paragraph waiting for my red pen.

I could not bring myself to do it.

I scanned a page of The Road, and then two, and then these shivers were running down my spine even though he used the simplest of words, the fewest of punctuation marks.

How can you make me feel so many things with so few marks on this page? I demanded.

It was the same thing I asked Emily (Dickinson), the first time I read, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun.”

The threat of violence felt so imminent in The Road, the fierce loyalty so holy, I could not stop. There was zero analysis. I read it straight through on skip day. Cover to cover.

At 4 p.m., as I drove home, it was as if someone had turned the lights back on in my world, as though I had been trapped with the characters in that apocalyptic twilight all day, and now I was free. The air was clear, the flowers bright. I had an insatiable desire to drive to the market to buy a piece of fruit.

What at the time seemed like an indulgence was more like resuscitation.

I think why that book, at that moment, mattered so much, even though it’s taken these years to put words to it, is this: wastelands spring up without warning, and they are rarely physical. They creep into our thinking, sucking out the color, draining our energy, whispering this is all there is. Survival-mode. Blah.

I was in a real funk when I read that book. I won’t bore you with why, but I will say I was broke and wandering. I was lonely and defeated. If ever I was in a wasteland, it was then, and yet when I walked out of that library, the sun was in the sky. The air was warm enough to forego a jacket. There were houses full of people. There was food to buy and people to call. There was no threat of gray, lifeless air, no threat of cannibals.

It was actually a pretty swell existence, if we are comparing it to The Road. I don’t mean to say I was taught a lesson, because it’s more beautiful than a truism. The book wasn’t so much a rebuke as it was a glimpse into my own troubled mind, my own limited perspective about circumstances that felt bleak and unchangeable.

Like most moms, my day–from waking until sleeping–is spoken for. Every bit of my energy and time are carefully choreographed. I’m tired, burned out by laundry and early wake ups and temper tantrums and negotiations. Always feeling rushed and never quite accomplishing what I want.

Finding time to read feels like an indulgence in this season.

But I bought a book I normally wouldn’t choose and devoured it this weekend. Cover to cover.

We also ate pizza.

CLAIRE CAREY DEERING believes less is more, in writing and in life.

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