Pawing through the rumpled, aging magazines in my dentist’s waiting room, I uncovered a sleek new volume: The Health of Today’s Woman. I hadn’t read that publication before; it looked pristine, and the cover, with its engaging middle-aged model, an attractive but believably real-life woman, drew me. A teaser read, “The Growing Dependency That No One Talks About”.
Hmm…What could that be about? I mused Chocolate? Caffeine? Bad boy relationships? I flipped open to the article and read.
And that was how I first became aware: even in this enlightened and digital age, more and more women are blatantly and blithely escaping into the paper world of books. The medicos call it Consistent Reader Syndrome. On the street, they’re known as the Book Babes. The condition cuts across ethnicities and economic statuses; it has no respect for age or infirmity. Those who have it are hard core and hard covered.
They read while they’re eating, while they’re cooking, and on their exercise bikes. They keep books in their purses and furtively partake while their passengers run into stores or post letters, and then they slide the tomes back into their hiding places and brazenly drive off. You come upon them in dark corners of coffee shops, far reaches of local libraries, intense, avid, and unaware of you, books pressed almost to their faces.
Unapologetic, frankly hooked, and quite unwilling to get help, their numbers–the article said–grow and grow.
I needed to know more. I needed firsthand information.
I decided to do some exploring.
Roseanne: A Case Study
It didn’t take me long to find a Book Babe willing to talk to me. Roseanne (not her real name) freely admits to reading at least two books a week. We were connected by her brother, my professional acquaintance. She agreed to meet me at Shakespeare’s, a local coffee shop; the irony of the name did not escape me.
I found her in the farthest back corner; she was reading, and even as I approached, I could see how difficult it was for her to close the book. Her hands were tense and white-jointed; she bit her lower lip. She forced the bookmark into the crease. Her fingers shook just perceptibly as she slid the book into her bag.
She wasn’t anxious for me to see what book she had been inhabiting, but I was able to make out the author’s name, Stephanie Kallos, as the book disappeared into the bag’s capacious depths. I pulled out my tablet and made a note, and then, smiling as engagingly as I could, I shook Roseanne’s hand and asked her to tell me about her reading.
She was only too happy to oblige.
She’d begun, she said, at the unbelievable age of three years old, when one day the letters in the newspaper just arranged themselves sensibly and she was suddenly, inexplicably, reading whole sentences. Newspapers never satisfied, and she quickly began stealing her mother’s magazines, searching for stories of Betsy McCall.
She needn’t have been so stealthy. When her mother discovered the stash of magazines beneath Roseanne’s bed, she reacted, not with shock, not with sadness, not with anger, but with complicity. She dressed the little girl and took her to a bookstore, where she encouraged the child to pick out FIVE books.
The clerk put them in a brown bag; a tiny Roseanne insisted on carrying it the car herself; and a lifelong habit was born.
In the evenings, just before bed time, the mother and daughter accomplices read together. Her father never knew, or, if he suspected, never let on.
“My mother’s voice,” Roseanne told me, “was animated and soothing all at once. It opened doors. It transported me to other worlds. And she encouraged me to take the book and read to her, in turn. She praised me, saying it was wonderful how I sounded out even the most difficult of words.”
Throughout her childhood, Roseanne’s mother aided and abetted her reading habit, paying for books, driving her to the library, recommending reads she’d enjoyed herself as a girl.
Roseanne admits to being the girl who went to the mall with her friends, agreed to meet them at a certain time, and slipped off to find a bench and read. She carried books to the beach, to concerts, to parties; she read in the car and on airplanes and beneath the hair dryer. Her friends’ annoyance didn’t phase her. She carried her book dependency into adulthood.
“Why?” I asked her. “Why books? Why still? Why now?”
Roseanne’s eyes grew dreamy. “You can’t understand if you’ve never experienced it,” she told me. Books, she said, carry her to different worlds, take her away from the humdrum, the mundane, the tragic or the incompatible.
Books, she said, calm her down, lift her up. They give her new ideas.
She said that, and she looked happy. I left her there, a true Book Babe, her hand sliding the book from her bag before my back was even turned.
How the Condition Spreads
Shaken by my encounter with the unrepentant bibliophile, I went searching for experts with answers. A friend, a therapist, referred me to a colleague of his, a Dr. Mary Reeder. Dr. Reeder has made a specialty of working with Consistent Reader Syndrome. She agreed to see me in her office, during a rare fifteen minute unscheduled interval.
I arrived at the fourth floor office suite in Dr. Reeder’s trendy new building, and I sat in a waiting room filled mostly with women. In one corner, a couple sat; he was rough-edged, and she was careworn. Their calloused hands were intertwined. Other women looked at their phones a little too intently (Aha! I thought–digital books!) Some sat, rocking, on their hands. They all stared mournfully at the shelves and shelves of books that surrounded them.
Putting Book Babes in close proximity with books? I wondered. What kind of therapy was this?
A gentle receptionist ushered me into Dr. Reeder’s office. More shelves, more books. More questions, which Dr. Reeder smilingly answered.
It was true, she said, that most women picked up the habit as children, often encouraged by mothers with habits too big to be contained. And some girls needed no encouraging at all. They just seemed to have a tendency to, a propensity for, the thrills that reading afforded. They found books, all on their own. They grew up, for the most part, full of ideas, asking questions, searching, searching, searching, for answers…looking for the words that would set them free.
“Ha!” I said. “Do they ever find them, though? Are they ever really set free?”
Dr. Reeder looked at me oddly–I’d have to say there was a little pity in her gaze.
“Ah, that’s the question, isn’t it?” she said. “And I don’t think you can answer it if you’ve never tried it.”
A prickling finger brushed up and down my back. Her words eerily echoed Roseanne’s.
Dr. Reeder hurried on. If a girl did not develop the reading habit in childhood, she explained, she was not home free. A teacher, a friend, a librarian looking for the right advantage,–if any one of these was discerning enough, he or she could slip the girl just the right book to get her hooked. It could happen anytime–a tome tucked into a gift package from an auntie, a book slid from hand to hand beneath desks in geography class. Young mothers, tired and needing escape, passing their books using their infants as cover, smuggle the books home in stroller pockets. Old ladies at nursing homes slip each other books as their wheelchairs brush in the hallway.
“And it’s not,” Dr. Reeder said cheerfully, “always women who are affected. I talked to one young man who was trying to understand his wife’s habit. She introduced him to her favorite authors, and soon they were reading together. They’d bring their books to bed and read to each other. It got so they couldn’t fall asleep at night without a book in their hands…”
A timer dinged as the doctor finished her story, and she looked at me apologetically but stood up to dismiss me. I gathered my things, and turning back, caught an unadulterated look of longing in the doctor’s eyes. She was staring at a book on her desk. My back prickled again, and I knew, somehow, that she would grab that book and read a paragraph before the next patient wandered in.
The doctor, I thought, is a Book Babe. As I walked out through the plushly carpeted waiting room, some of the waiting patients met my eyes defiantly. I felt cold. This isn’t therapy, I thought. This is a book club.
I hurried out the door.
One thing is true: you know someone with Consistent Reader Syndrome. At least one in four people, Dr. Reeder had assured me, is afflicted; the number of unreported cases might make the percentage much higher.
I went home and looked up some research websites the doctor had given me. There are consistent symptoms of the syndrome, I discovered. If I wanted to positively identify a Book Babe, I should look for these:
–a vast store of knowledge on a variety of subjects.
–the constant carrying of bags large enough to conceal books; the bags often sag suspiciously under the weight of the hidden volume(s).
–books stashed in places throughout the home and office–stashed, for instance, on bedside tables, in kitchen drawers, on TV trays, and between potted plants.
–a shaky, quavery sense of real dismay when one book is finished and there is not another to begin.
Book Babes are also adept at creating bookmarks out of all kinds of used substances, from coupons to napkins. They are, the website informed me, ingenious and unstoppable. They inhabit libraries, lurk outside bookstores, spend a great deal of time internet shopping. They drink coffee. They congregate and discuss their reading with other Babes in hushed, almost reverent voices. They often have young children with them–children who drink in their mother’s behaviors and digest them.
Efforts at Control
Paper books in a digital age? E-readers offer bibliophiles an electronic alternative to their paper mania, but so far, manufacturers are deeply disappointed by the response. The Book Babes clearly prefer the heft and feel of a book in their hands, although they will resort to electronic devices in enclosed spaces, such as trains or planes. Another ‘fix’ that experts thought would surely eliminate the book dependency was television; again, proponents were sadly disappointed. Although many Book Babes are also tube-watchers, most prefer to read a book before watching the film or TV adaptation. And most end an evening of TV watching by reading in bed.
Imposing busyness was also thought to be helpful, until it was discovered that clever women find ways to read even while cooking or doing laundry.
Outlook for the Future
After my meeting with Dr. Reeder, I made a quiet visit to the library, where I borrowed a copy of a book by the author I’d seen on Roseanne’s volume. Broken for You was the title of the Stephanie Kallos book; I opened it cautiously and began to read about the redemptive relationship between a wacky young artist and a guilt-filled older woman.
I thought I was incorruptible, questing only for knowledge; I soon found myself immersed in the book. The lure, the pull was undeniable. I confess to being lost.
I now have a three-book a week habit. I don’t see any way to stop. I am a woman in search of a book club, a Book Babe on the prowl for new titles.
Reader, if you see me, huddled on my bench, hooded head bent over the book held tightly in my hands, know that this is the life I have chosen, the path I have opted to tread. You see me; lost in the world of my book, unless jolted, I don’t see you.
I have Consistent Reader Syndrome. I know it; I accept it; I’ll share my book with you.