"I don't read."

I've always been a fan of recreational reading. At a very young age, I was scouring the children's section of the library for any books featuring monsters. By fourth grade, I had become an avid science fiction fan. In sixth grade I read so much that my total grade in reading class was more than two hundred percent. It would have been even higher had I chosen to only read books that were on the teacher's list of books we could read for credit, but there simply wasn't a great enough selection to hold my interest, and my pleas for additions were met with, "Well, that's a little advanced for this class." To this day, I find myself reading for the sheer hell of it very regularly. The only gap in my literary history was eighth grade, when I became too cool to read.

The friends I had made in junior high were, for the most part, fantasy nerds . In fact, most of my friendships were formed simply by being noticed carrying around Dungeons and Dragons books. In my circle, there was no stigma against the hopelessly nerdy books that we were fond of, and certainly none against reading in general.

When I went to a different school in eighth grade, though, things were different. My new friends were more trouble makers than nerds, and we filled our time by playing with cigarette lighters and making fun of people, rather than engaging in any activity that required too much thought. Our heroes were Beavis and Butt-head, who were funny then but so much funnier now that I realize they were making fun of the young idiots that we all were. When I carried around my Dungeons and Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, my best friend asked, "You know that's, like, the nerd encyclopedia, right?" I promptly stopped carrying it around.

One day in English class, our teacher brought us to the library. My friend was flirting with the librarian, a girl a year older than us, and asked if we could see the "request only" books, which I didn't even know existed. She let us come behind the counter and look at a rolling shelf of books that weren't kept with the rest because of their controversial natures. It was sort of a stupid idea, because it just drew attention to the books and made us more interested in them than we otherwise would have been. Had this not been in a very conservative and oppressively religious area, I would have suspected that it was just a ploy to get kids interested in reading. (I guess that could have been a possibility, as I don't remember who the librarian was at the time, only the crazy, power-mad and angry woman who later replaced her.) I decided to check out a book from the shelf. Among the books about serial killers and Satanism, I found a copy of Stephen King's The Dark Tower. I hadn't really read much Stephen King, but I remembered hearing some of my nerdier friends raving about this book the year before, so I checked it out.

My neighbor was a kid named Rick. I used to go over to his house after school sometimes and we'd ride his 4-wheeler to the gas station, where he'd buy us a bunch of candy, and then we'd go set things on fire or play video games. On the bus, we'd listen to gangsta rap through one headphone each connected to his CD player. Rick was a popular guy, and he was my link to the coolest kids. I was no longer a nerd, but I was far from being the most popular kid in school, so it was good that I could call Rick a friend. People knew I was awesome when I walked into school with him. In fact, people initially thought I was his younger brother when I started attending that school. He was Mexican, and I'm Filipino and white, but dark is dark when you're in the middle-of-nowhere, Indiana. Rick was popular enough that he was even admired by racists who would call me a "spick" and a "beaner." One asshole, Kevin, who claimed to be in the KKK and had threatened to "get me after school" if I didn't get rid of the anti-Nazi patch on my backpack, told Rick, "You know, I don't really like spicks, but you're alright!" Rick considered this a compliment, and considered Kevin alright, too. Rick was just a cool guy, and everybody liked him.

Rick wasn't the only awesome kid on my bus, though. There was another, Josh, who was a year older than us, and was way cool. He was on the football team, popular as all hell, and was just simply cool as shit. His whole family was really popular and heavily involved in the various school athletic programs. Their dad owned a grocery store, and their family was considered hot shit in the school and in the area. Unfortunately, I wasn't cool enough to talk to him. Rick was, though.

One morning on the bus, I was showing Rick the forbidden book I had checked out from the library. He was impressed by the illustrations, particularly one of a dead guy hanging from a noose, and another of a child being attacked by monsters. When Josh got on the bus, Rick tried to show him the book.

"Hey," he said, "Check out this crazy book he has!"

"No," he said, to Rick but not to me, since he didn't talk to me. "I don't read!" he said, rolling his eyes and making me feel like the biggest dork in the world. I shrunk into my seat. How would people ever think I was cool if I enjoyed such lame activities as reading? I put the book in my backpack and sat silently for the rest of the ride while Rick talked to Josh, no doubt about things much cooler than a nerd like myself could possibly imagine.

My family used to make regular trips to a big library about 40 minutes away from where we lived. It was outside of our county, so my parents had to pay some kind of fee to be able to use that library, but it was worth it since we lived in a tiny town with a tiny one-room library. Until that point, I had really enjoyed going there and feeding my brain. After I realized how lame it was to read, though, I wanted nothing to do with the place. I'd protest going, but would be forced to go, anyway. When we'd go there, I'd go sit in front of one of the TVs in the media room and watch MTV, hoping to catch a glimpse of my heroes, Beavis and Butt-head.

At some point my mom asked me why I didn't go looking for something to read.

"I don't read!" I said, trying to sound as cool as Josh did when he said it.

"What?" my mom asked, aghast that I had said such a thing. "Where did you learn that?"

As my mom scolded me, I realized how stupid it was to be anti-reading. Still, for a while after that, I wouldn't let myself get caught carrying around recreational reading material at school.


The Blogging Alchemist said...

I was somewhat of a fantasy nerd in my day too. I was really into David Gemmell and Piers Anthony. Anyhow, I always thought it strange that when I was really young (elementary), I wasn't really a fan of reading. Now, I'm not sure how I survived. I think part of it was not being popular in junior high and getting picked on all the time lent itself to a need to escape to a world with bad-ass axe and sword fighters.

Doug said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vonjobi said...

i don't think i've ever been cool. but i've always loved reading. check this out: http://filipinolibrarian.blogspot.com/2007/01/reading.html