What Happened to My Ladies’ Mags? (Laments the Old Lady)

I read all the time when I was a kid. Well, not ALL the time, of course. But I would have if I could have. I read in bed–read until I fell asleep and again when I woke up, and I brought books to the table, although that was forbidden on certain days and at certain meals. I carried a book with me to games and parties and anywhere there might be a wait time. I took books to the grocery store. When I was big enough for a purse, my purse was generally big enough for a book.

I was not allowed to read while walking to school (some rules just seemed so random to me, but I shrugged and figured my mother must have her secret reasons.) When company came over, I at least had to surface long enough to make pleasant conversation before diving back into a sea of words.

And the words could come from anywhere: cereal boxes, model car packages, Ayds diet candy true testimonials…I was not, as a child, a discerning reader. I just read everything that strayed into my line of vision.

Here’s an Ayds ad I found on tedium.com. As a chubby, chocoholic child, I though a diet based on eating candy was probably the right kind of magic.

Our sterling-quality public library was within walking distance, and, as soon as I turned seven and got my first library card, I made that trek at least once a week. And we had books at home—Dr. Seuss books with pages worn soft as cloth (I would read through Yertle the Turtle, whose power-crazed ambition always put me off,–and I felt so SORRY for poor little Mack!–to get to the story about Lolla-Lee-Lou, who traded her ability to fly for a flashy set of tail feathers. I don’t know why I loved that story so), dog-eared Little Golden Books, cheap kids’ books from the grocery store. There was a book about a boy who yearned, growing up out West, for a ten-gallon hat. There was one about a boy growing up in Africa who did everything wrong. At the end of the book, he stepped splat in the middle of all six (I think) chocolate pies his long-suffering mother had made for him. I wanted badly to defend that boy, feeling, as I often did, that I, too, got just about everything wrong.

My mother brought home classic kid reads from rummage sales—Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey Twins books.

And there were newspapers, twice a day—the first city paper, the Courier-Express, in the morning; the second city paper, The Evening News, in the afternoon. The local paper arrived after school, too. The newspapers all ran interesting things—they had comics, of course; human interest stories that were sometimes very interesting; horoscopes; police blotters; and daily puzzles.

And, every once in a while, my mother would give in to a frivolous impulse and subscribe to a ladies’ magazine. How I wanted her to subscribe to McCall’s, which featured a Betsy McCall paper doll each month. There was a story about Betsy, too, and she always had exactly the right clothes to wear.

Vintage Betsy McCall page from etsy.com

One of my friends had a mother who subscribed to McCall’s; that friend cut the paper dolls out and brought them to school along with their clothes and allowed us to look, but not touch.

“They’re VERY fragile,” she would say, haughtily. Filled with longing for those dolls, I wanted so much to grab them away from sour Miss Stingy and dress Betsy in her perfect yellow rain slicker. Looking was not much fun.

The other place Betsy turned up was in the doctor’s office, where old, old copies of the magazine moldered on formica-topped end tables. I would open to the Betsy section and dream that I could take a scissors and clip and snip, making Betsy mine. (Maybe I would paste her onto an empty cereal box and cut her out; maybe I would reinforce her clothes with scrap paper. Maybe then, they wouldn’t be so fragile.)

But there was a rule about doctor’s office magazines—a commandment really, invented late because magazines didn’t exist when Moses was climbing up that mountain. The commandment was this: Thou shalt not deface magazines in waiting rooms.

Sometimes, during a long wait, my mother would take out a pen and copy down a recipe from a magazine. She might sigh over a really good coupon, but she’d close the magazine and leave it intact. She hated getting deeply engrossed in a magazine article and then flipping to page 182 for the finale, only to find some fiend had used a fingernail to carve out a 25-cent coupon for Crest or Heinz beans, carving out the end of the story, as well.

“LOOK at that,” she’d say, in disgust. “What kind of worm does such a thing?”

When my mother called someone a worm, things were pretty dire. I swallowed my suggestion that maybe we could ask the receptionist if I could take the Betsy pages from a really old magazine. And I learned to live with the disappointment of knowing Mom would never order McCalls to be delivered to our home.

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My mother DID, however, subscribe to Redbook. Redbook was a thick magazine with interesting articles—there was always a true-life story, kind of a ‘how I solved this dilemma’ kind of thing. I remember reading a mother’s story about her tiny ill child, a child who had been perfectly healthy but then began wasting away. The child grew thin and lethargic, and the mother was frantic to feed him. She would squeeze oranges and serve the baby that healthy juice, pouring it into a fun glass from a brightly-colored pottery pitcher.

They had bought the pitcher in another country; the glaze was lead-based. Finally, a doctor recognized the child’s desperate dilemma as lead-poisoning, and finally the mother identified the pitcher as the source of the lead.

The moral of the story was not to use pottery unless you were sure it contained no lead.

Redbook was known for its controversial, thoughtful articles on civil rights, which was unusual for a ladies’ magazine in the 1960’s, and it ran more fiction than any other magazine in its genre. At the back of the issue, printed on rough, newsprint-y type paper, there was always the condensed Redbook novel. I read Anne Tyler’s A Slipping Down Kind of Life (I was struck by Casey’s song at the end, when he queried plaintively, “But the letters were carved backwards. Weren’t they?”) in Redbook, and then I followed her writing as I grew older. Judith Guest’s Ordinary People was a Redbook novel. And every year, in July, I think—just in time for summer reading,–they would have a special fiction issue, jam-packed with short stories.

I LOVED Redbook. Of course, it was my mother’s magazine, so I had to wait, not very patiently, while she worked her way through it in the nooks and crannies that life allotted her for reading. (Woe to me if I snuck peeks early and moved or lost her bookmark. I would be the worm, then.) But when she was done, I could take the magazine to my room and devour it. I met writers like Gail Godwin in those pages, writers who have remained favorite authors for forty years.

Redbook changed hands, I think, and changed format, and the fiction disappeared; the magazine became more glossy and more focused on the challenges of modern married women. But I left Redbook before it left me, anyway; I left it for a glossy, glitzy periodical aimed right at young, independent, free-spirited women in the 1970’s: Cosmopolitan.

I worked at a supermarket during late high school and for many of my college years, and one of the real perks of being there was knowing when the new Cosmo came out. My monthly treat was the thick new issue, and a giant Nestle’s Crunch bar, and a block of time long enough to completely digest both.

I came to Cosmo AFTER Burt Reynolds posed his famous pose, and I really did read the magazine for its articles. Many of those dealt with risqué topics that addressed young independent women who washed ashore on the second wave of feminism. And those articles were interesting, of course, but the one that sticks with me was one by a single professional woman whose apartment was a mess. It was such a mess, she wrote, that her dates left in horror and never once called her back.

She railed for a time, raging that in these days of liberation, women—smart, professional, busy women!!!—should not be judged by their slovenly homes. But gradually she came to see that cleanliness could co-exist with independence, and her habits changed. As they did, her apartment morphed into a place of comfort and beauty and sanctuary for HER.

She learned self-care.

She learned to be house proud.

It probably says something about me that the article I most remember from racy, scandalous Cosmo was the one about learning to keep your house clean.

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Later, after college, I discovered Country Living, a magazine all about home and creativity and life in the not-so-urban areas, just like places where I lived. That, I think, was the first magazine I ever subscribed to, and its arrival day carried the same charge as those days when I had discovered the new Cosmo on the supermarket displays.

I still enjoy paging through Country Living, although, like all ladies’ mags, it’s had its own evolution. And today I look forward to regional magazines—Midwest Living, Ohio Magazine—sliding through the mail slot. Some of my favorite recipes have come from the pages of those two publications. We’ve discovered fascinating places to visit, too,–places we would not have found without reading those magazines.

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But I fear for paper magazines, just as I fear for local papers. Because I don’t HAVE to wait for a periodical to arrive for inspiration; I can hop online and read commentary, find a recipe, research paint colors. There are, alas, as far as I can tell, no longer any women’s magazines that carry the kind of rich, new fiction that Redbook used to feature.

But I think there’s still a place for the monthly magazine, a slow, delighted, reflective kind of place, where we step off the conveyor belt and settle down in the reading chair. It’s a place where we can let ourselves be inspired, shocked, challenged, or validated by what we read and encounter—essays and articles, great photography (Scavullo, by the way, shot Burt Reynolds, whose arm was very discreetly positioned in that famous photo. Or so I heard, anyway, back in the day), unbiased reactions, and yes, really good recipes, accompanied by photos and stories.

I’m exploring, these days, OTHER magazines, not just-for-women magazines, that offer that fresh, smart, relevant content. I know I will find the one that clicks, that tells me, “Yes! Here I am! I am YOUR magazine!’ And then I will subscribe, and I’ll wait, excited, for each monthly issue to arrive.

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In the meantime, I’ll keep reading, of course. I have a tottering stack of to-be-read books. We still get a paper copy of the local paper, every day. I have a file in my email called ‘Interesting Stuff’ where I archive articles and essays and links family and friends send; once a week I try to clear time to feed my soul on what’s in there.

And even if I should someday run out of that kind of reading material, I’m not worried.  I still have plenty of cereal.

Unabashed Book Babes: Consistent Reader Syndrome on the Rise

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.

Recognizing Symptoms

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.