For most of my life, I never went anywhere without a book. I was always a great reader, as were my brothers, and on trips, silence frequently reigned in the backseat as we all read. This habit held me in good stead in college, where as an English major I had to read thousands of pages. Five minutes early for lunch with a friend? Get out a book and read! When I moved to New York and initially had a long commute from my apartment in Queens to my job in Manhattan, I was never bookless. I got so good at reading while standing on a swaying subway, grabbing a strap with one hand, holding the book with the other, that one winter I read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov—all 700 or so pages, paperback—while commuting.
Once I moved to New Hampshire and had children, more than my own books went everywhere with me. There were books for the children as well, for me to read to them while waiting for doctor appointments, or for them to look at or read in the backseat whenever we went anywhere. That was often the last thing I said to them when we would leave the house: Do you have something to read? And so, of course, I always had a book as well.
Yet as my children grew up and away, and—I confess—once I got a smart phone and could take my home office with me, at least to deal with the daily flow of emails, I no longer automatically grabbed a book on my way out the door. This change struck me forcefully when I went to renew my driver license recently. I live in New Hampshire, a small state, and the DMV in a neighboring town is always populated with smiling clerks. Except when my children took their driving tests, I’ve never been there more than twenty minutes. Yet that morning, as I arrived five minutes after the DMV opened, the line was already out the door.
Why didn’t I bring a book? I thought as I took my place in line. I was reading a good book right then, Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym, a slim paperback that would have been easy to read while standing there. On the other hand, I consoled myself, standing in line is an excellent way to practice presence and no resistance, to being in the moment. The line moved steadily, most people were cheerful enough—at least, no one outwardly grumbled—and the clerks were as pleasant as ever. The hour I was there slipped by, and I pulled out my phone only once, to answer a text from a coworker. All in all, though, I wish I had brought a book.
So, there is now a sign on my door: Do you have something to read?