Thursday, March 11, 2010

How We Read

Elizabeth Zelvin

My husband and I spent our thirty-fourth Valentine’s Day together last month, and our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary is coming up in September. Throughout this time, we have cheerfully admitted that we have very little in common. Nowhere is this more apparent than in what and how we read. We do both read for pleasure, and perhaps that bit of commonality is responsible, along with the fact that our apartment has two bathrooms, for the longevity and happiness of our marriage. We even know a lot of the same things, especially about history, although he learned them by reading nonfiction and I picked most of them up from novels.

Can you picture a couple spending a companionable evening reading, perhaps seated in a pair of comfortable chairs, looking up occasionally to exchange glances or even to read a felicitous passage aloud? Not us. First, we spend a lot of our at-home evenings in separate rooms. When I get on the computer in the living room, I tend to fall right in. I’m oblivious to him, except when he enters my personal space, which I’d estimate as a radius of four to six feet from me and the computer. I want him to Go Away. I certainly don’t want him interrupting my train of thought with his chuckles over some quip by or about the subject of his current reading, which might be anyone from Marcus Aurelius to Dr. Samuel Johnson to Natalie Barney.

How about when he’s on the computer? Can’t I sit on the couch and read? Nope. For some mysterious reason, the websites my husband visits on the computer all make noise. Not just the computer games—he’s particularly fond of Risk, which allows him to conquer the world over and over again—but all kinds of sites with sound tracks and embedded videos. Most Americans today live voluntarily or at least resignedly with a constant background of media noise. I march to a different drummer. When I’m listening to music, I listen. Otherwise, give me silence. Please.

We don’t have a TV in the living room. Neither did my parents, and this quirk may well have helped me develop into a dedicated reader. But how about reading in bed while he watches TV? Or even watching TV with him. Forget it. He’s got the gene for clicking the remote, which I’m convinced is located on the Y chromosome. Channel surfing drives me nuts. Anyhow, I want to watch True Blood, while he opts for Band of Brothers.

So why not read in bed together? We do. But. For one thing, I read sitting up. I like to read until I’m drowsy enough to fall asleep quickly when I turn out the light. If I try before I’m sleepy, I tend to toss and turn for hours. My husband, au contraire, reads lying on his stomach. After about five minutes, his head droops and his breath takes on the rhythmic drone of the comatose. That’s when I elbow him in the ribs and advise him to take off his glasses and turn out his light.

“Did I fall asleep?” he’ll ask.
“Immediately,” I’ll say. “Face down in the porridge.”

Here’s another problem. My husband loves to share tidbits as he reads.

“Listen to this!” he’ll say, interrupting my absorption in an emotional climax in my story or the revelation in a mystery. I bought him a “Shhh, I’m reading” mug a few years back. He thought it was cute, but he didn’t internalize the message.

“I don’t do this to you,” I’ll say. He’ll say that he wouldn’t mind if I did. Of course he doesn’t mind being interrupted. He reads history—he knows already how it all comes out. And in case you think it doesn’t make a difference, the other night he actually picked up a novel. (He discovered Bernard Cornwell while waiting around for me in libraries and bookstores during my 2008 book tour.) I happened to come across something in my own book that I thought he’d find interesting.

“Listen to this!” I said.
“Shhh, I’m reading,” he said.


Sheila Connolly said...

My husband has always professed a deep admiration for books, and has spent our 30+ years together apologizing for reading slowly. He used to collect a lot of books he thought he "should" have, but most of them have gone unread. I think the Patrick O'Brien (Master and Commander) books are the only ones that have really captured and held him--otherwise, put him in a comfortable chair with a book and he's out like a light.

How did he end up married to a writer? (He's a scientist.)

Anonymous said...

We read in bed together and share bits and look over each other's shoulders to see if the book the other person is reading might be slightly more interesting that what we're reading.

One of life's truly great pleasures.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, my husband insists that the O'Brian (just checked the spelling) books are a poor substitute for the Hornblower books. Has yours read those?

signlady217 said...

We just celebrated our 24th anniversary in December. How did we do it? God only knows!! (It might be our two bathrooms, too!)For the most part we don't like any of the same things, whether it's books, movies or activities. He likes lots of people around, being outside, financial/self-help books, court TV shows, etc. For me, it's no people (or just a couple of good friends for a short while), a great mystery, or a good "cop" show, and being inside.

And yeah, if he sits/lies down, he's pretty much out; takes me hours sometimes to shut off my brain.

Crazy life sometimes!

Kaye George said...

My reading overlaps slightly with hubbie's, in the area of thrillers. He loves westerns, Louis L'Amour, and also loves Patrick O'Brien, but he's read them all. We both like to reread Stout and Christie. But, for some reason, we're usually not reading at the same time. I'm on the computer a lot and usually want to watch TV when he wants to read.

I'm the one that wants to read aloud to him, and I know it annoys him, but he should listen--what I'm saying is so interesting!

We vote to cancel each other out. That's our biggest chasm, but if it's not November in an election year, we get along pretty well.

Carolyn J. Rose said...

My husband (and co-author) and I have similar tastes in books and read in bed--a king with two lamps above and one on each side so pages are well lit. He often rises at 3:30 to work an early radio shift but, fortunately, can fall asleep with ease and in any amount of light, so I can read on without guilt. Apparently he can interrupt without guilt, because he does that nearly every night. I am not without sin, however, and break into his concentration to share "vital" literary facts such as how many opponents Jack Reacher is about to take on and what the body count will be before Joe Pike and Elvis Cole are finished.