Jan Stafford Kellis

Literary Self Defense

We’ve all heard about the power of the written word, and the power of knowledge, and how the pen is mightier than the sword. But have you used a book as a weapon?

When I was a kid, reading was my first line of defense. The bookcase was my arsenal.

Mom’s first rule of life was everyone had to be busy and productive. Her second rule was to be practical. Dad’s first rule of life was to exist without interruption by any children. In other words, I was to be seen and not heard. For the first eight years of my life, my role was merely walk-on.

If I was sitting idly or pacing around aimlessly, my mom was likely to assign me a chore. If I made any noise of any kind, my dad was likely to yell. I didn’t understand this response, as he amplified the decibel level more than I could ever hope to do.

When I held a book open, though, nobody expected me to do anything else. Mom regarded self-education as the height of practical productivity. I think she could actually see my little neurons firing when I read a book.

Dad allowed the quiet shush of page-turning as long as I didn’t lick my finger to separate the pages or, God forbid, drop the book by trying to turn the page one-handed while holding a glass of lemonade in the other hand. Yes, I speak from experience. Now that I think about it, near-silent page-turning may have been the only allowable sound during my early years. When I first heard the song “The Sound Of Silence,” I thought Mr. Garfunkel had written it about my life. No one dared disturb the sound of silence.

Even now, reading is an excellent form of self-defense. A person engrossed in a book invites no conversation, no idle chitchat, no philosophical discussion. The reader might as well be invisible.

Except to the non-reader. You know who I’m talking about: the people roaming this earth who don’t read books. Incomprehensible, I know. Nonetheless, these literary plebeians (we shouldn’t call them troglodytes) tend to see the reader, but not the book.  It’s a somewhat rare form of selective vision, mysterious and annoying to those of us enthralled with the written word.

Non-readers don’t realize the reader is not really sitting there but is, instead, rambling around Mordor or ancient Rome.  Non-readers (NRs) are confused by the reader’s visible corporeal form, possibly because NRs take so few mental vacations. It seems a form of prison, really, to restrict oneself to one life while the savvy reader enjoys limitless freedom and experiences as many lives as she or he desires.

I can’t pretend to understand non-readers, but I can imagine how claustrophobic it must feel to never have lived between the pages of a book.  Perhaps it’s similar to living in a cave and not realizing there’s an entire wide world just beyond the bush that camouflages the entrance. Maybe NRs are happy and well-fed in the dark, damp cave, unaware of sunshine and flowers.

Although, most NRs probably never experience the distinct shoulder ache caused by a loaded book bag slung over one shoulder. And they wouldn’t suffer reading-related injuries. Tripping on a cracked sidewalk and twisting an ankle while reading a potboiler, or stubbing a toe while reading and vacuuming, or suffering a stab to the eye when the corner of the book gets a little too close while shopping. These things just don’t happen to NRs. In fact, NRs might have cleaner houses than avid readers because they notice more dust than readers, who hone their focus to the page rather than the dusty shelves.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t shrink from reality. Well, not exactly. I read to expand my reality, broaden the scope of my life, stretch my understanding of time periods and cultures I’ll never personally experience. When I crash back to reality, it’s usually quite pleasant, and sometimes disorienting.

I suppose NRs never gaze around with the distracted look of a reader recently torn from the page, a half-step behind the conversation. They’re probably always present, living in the moment, and facing reality with a brave face.

Many of my friends are NRs, and we enjoy celebrating our differences. They escort me out of my shell and away from the book I’m currently reading, and I recount various trivial facts I’ve read, leaving them with valuable conversational fodder. I always feel athletic and sociable after hanging out with an NR, which justifies my quick return to my favorite chair, book in hand.

I’ll continue to carry a book with me everywhere I go. It’s still my first line of defense. And the heavier the book, the more effective the weapon.