THE TWO Rs
"You can't be a writer until you're a reader."
Did somebody actually say that to me? I can't remember. Maybe it was that punitive inner voice, that deafening commentary that accompanies everything I do and say and think, like a baseball play-by-play announcer.
I used to be a reader, when I was a kid. I loved biographies, particularly of historical figures. I guess that makes sense when you're named after a president. Clarification: I wasn't really named after a president. I was named after the Dad who adopted me, but he had the same name as a president and now so do I, even though I didn't before. (But "before" is the old me, and that's not what this story is about.)
The Hewlett Woodmere Public Library had no books on William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States. Why not? Isn't that what libraries are for? They are supposed to have books on everything, just like Amazon.com (only it's free and you don't need a computer).
So I decided to write one. A book, I mean. It was called William McKinley: The Forgotten President. I was in the sixth grade at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic School. It never occurred to me that an eleven year-old kid couldn't write a historical biography. The voices were not quite so deafening back then. (What made them worse?)
File that book away under "unfinished works" because I never finished it. Maybe I was distracted by playing baseball with my friends (I had real ones back then), or terrorizing my little sister (also adopted) or watching soap operas with my mother (against the wishes of the Sister Dorothy, whom I didn't like).
We had gotten our first VCR for Christmas in 1980 and my Mom (then called Mommy) and I would watch The Guiding Light, Another World and The Edge of Night every evening after dinner. It's really a miracle that I'm not gay. I mean, not gay in the sex way. But in just about every other way I am. (But that is neither here not there.)
So 25 years ago I was both a reader and a writer. What am I now? A writer? Maybe you think so, because right now you are reading something that I wrote. (Are you enjoying it? I hope so.)
So, yes, in that sense I am a writer. But so is the Korean lady at the nail shop on South End Avenue who printed "BATHROOMS FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY" in neat, block letters on the back of an envelope and taped it to the door. I read that sign every day. She wrote it. That makes her a writer.
I write every day. (Okay, almost every day. Get off my back.) But does that make me a writer? I tell people I write every day and they are very impressed, as if I had just mentioned that I feed all the stray cats in Battery Park every night, like that guy I used to work with. (His name was Rich, and probably still is.)
They ask me what I am writing, these people that I tell. "My blog" I say, as I watch them grow nervous, as if I might ask them to read it. Maybe it's because every idiot with internet access and free time has a blog about how cute their cat is. But me writing every day and posting it to my blog is considered, by some, to be in the same category as the collected works of the nail salon lady (Korean, like my sister).
They don't care (these people) that I write about deep things, or that I work very hard or that I take it very seriously. They only care that it's a blog and that is all they need to know. Many people (including "friends") will not read this story, even though it's right there on their computer. But if this story were published in The New York Times, they would go out and buy a copy and send me a congratulatory email:
"Congrats on all your success! Keep in touch! (Not stated: so you can help me out some day. But implied.)
Let me get to what I originally wanted to say: I read.
I am not one of those people who proudly announce I don't read books! like it's something to brag about. True, I don't read books. But I'm not going to advertise it to the world.
I love the idea of books. I love the fact that books exist. I just don't read them. And it's not because I don't want to. I do want to. I just can't. Or won't. (Is there a difference?)
I own many books that I have not read. But they are all in good condition and they look nice on my shelves (currently dusty). Why would somebody buy a book and not read it? That is a good question. But just because I haven't read it doesn't mean I'm not going to, some day, when the time is right.
If you buy a head of lettuce and you don't eat it, eventually it will become rotten and you will have to throw it away (wasteful). The same cannot be said for books. I have books that I bought in 1981 that are just as fresh as the one I might buy today at Barnes & Noble. And some day I will read those books, if I ever get locked in a room, or sent to jail or stop drinking so much Diet Coke (caffeine makes it hard for me to focus, but so does depression and the medicine I take makes me tired, so that explains all the Diet Coke).
Last Wednesday I started a new writing class. I submitted a piece that I had worked on in a previous class and the teacher was critiquing it.
"Have you ever read anything by Lorri Moore?" the teacher (Victoria) asked.
"No," I confessed. I had hoped that this topic would not come up.
"Oh, I love her writing!" a classmate (Nicole) chimed in. "She wrote a story about her baby getting cancer that was hilarious, but in a completely tragic way."
Teacher and classmate bonded over their affection for this particular writer, as I sat there smiling politely. I was only a few feet away, but I felt completely separate from them. There was a wall between us, but not of bricks and mortar, or adobe, or that textured fabric they use for cubicles (what's it called?). It was a wall of books, and magazines, and poetry, and anthologies and scholarly journals and I don't even know what else.
But I do know this: the wall was impenetrable.
I have this weird problem where I can only read while I am doing something else. Here's where I can read: the subway; the bus; the train, the plane; the toilet. Here's where I can't read: everywhere else.
I'm 37. I have never sat in my apartment on a rainy day (or any day) reading. Again, I am not bragging about this. I am just sharing, so lighten up with the judgment, okay? I have enough of that for both of us.
I do try to read The New York Times every day. Notice I said "I try to read." I didn't say "I read." Somewhere along the line I got the idea that everybody in New York City had to read The Times each and every day or they would get deported back to Long Island, or New Jersey or wherever it was they came from with a dollar and a dream (on the bus?).
Here's the problem: if you read The New York Times cover to cover each day you will do nothing else with your life. And don't even get me started on the Sunday Times. That is a cruel joke for people like me. (Don't drop it on your foot. Ouch!)
Did I mention that I love Barnes & Noble? Barnes & Noble is the biggest store that exists for something that not everybody does. Is that confusing? I mean, not everybody reads books, yet Barnes & Noble is bigger than a thing that everybody does do, like shop at a supermarket (maybe for lettuce, as previously analogized).
I like people that hang out in bookstores. They are my people, even though I am not one of them (yet). Sometimes I look in the window at Barnes & Noble, just watching people read. They seem to be in another world (not the soap opera). I wish I could go where they go.
"Those people in there are buying books that they will actually read!" I think to myself as I suck the ice cold Diet Coke through the straw of the large cup I bought at Subway (the sandwich shop, not the mass transportation system).
But today was different. Today I got off the subway (the transportation system, not the sandwich shop) and I walked past Barnes & Noble. But this time I went in.
The door swung open and my damp torso was immediately embraced by a wall of refreshingly cool air. It felt like an icy hug by a giant polar bear (only with huge walls of books, not ice).
I walked up to the counter that said "Customer Service." I was a customer and I needed some service so it seemed like the right place to be.
There was a young, blonde-haired man behind the counter and he was wearing glasses. I liked the fact that he was wearing glasses. I imagined that he loved reading so much as a child that he wore out his eyes, and thus the glasses. His parents were probably mad at him, but his brain wasn't! (because it was smart)
"I need a book!" I declared to the man with the worn-out eyes.
"Well, you've certainly come to the right place," he answered (a bit like Oscar Wilde, but how would I know).
"It's called Birds of America and it's written by..."
"Lorri Moore," he interrupted.
See, this guy knew his stuff! I knew he would. There was just something about him. It wasn't just the glasses. It was his general sense of being at home in a four-story temple to the art of writing.
How do you get a job at Barnes & Noble, anyway? Do they give you a pop quiz? (Sample question: Who wrote Birds of America? Answer: Lorri Moore. You're hired!)
The sales clerk walked me over to a table with a sign that read Staff Suggestions. Apparently he had selected this particular book and placed it on this particular table, right next to that particular checkout counter (subliminal message).
"It's a great book," the bespectacled blond boy said to me.
"Yes, I have heard that from many fellow writers," I answered, with my nose pushed ever-so-slightly into the air. "I love to read great books, as all great writers do!"
I waited on the checkout line next to a sweaty bald guy holding a copy of Pregnancy for Dummies. I wondered if he was the Dummy (because he certainly wasn't the Pregnancy). Then I got to the cashier.
"I'd like to buy this book please!" I said. "I've heard it's very good."
"I didn't read it," the cashier said with disinterest. (I guess she got that one wrong on the quiz!)
I paid my $14.95 (plus tax) and the cashier asked me if I needed a bag.
"No thanks," I said. "I'll just carry it."
Even though I am wearing a backpack (as always), I have walked around New York City all day today proudly carrying my copy of Birds of America. I imagine people looking at me (holding my book) thinking to themselves, "He's a reader! I knew it just by looking at him, even though he doesn't wear glasses!"
As of this writing, I have not yet read any of the book I bought today. But I am writing about it. Does that make me a writer? Or a reader? Or both? Or neither?
I'd like to keep talking about this, but the baseball game is about to start. I don't play any more, but I do like to watch (with the sound turned all the way down).