I’ve mentioned before that I’m an avid reader. My idea of a perfect weekend day is being curled up in an armchair reading hundreds of pages of a good novel.
One problem that readers often have is finding that just-right place to read in peace. When that armchair isn’t an option, there have been times where I’ve struggled to find a place that is comfortable, relatively quiet, has ample lighting and is in a spot where I won’t be disturbed.
I just finished reading The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford (which also means that I just finished reading every book that won a Pulitzer prize for fiction, but that will be the topic of a future post). In that book, one of the short stories was titled A Reading Problem in which a young girl struggles to find a place to read in peace and quiet.
Immediately I could relate.
“One of the great hardships of my childhood – and there were many, as many, I suppose, as have ever plagued a living creature – was that I could never find a decent place to read.”
The main character tries reading in her living room (but then she has parents or family members telling her it’s too dark and she’ll hurt her eyes or she should be playing outside), in the mountains (but then she deals with ticks and snakes), the library (but the librarian is always telling her she reads ‘rubbish’), or even the lobby of the hotel (but here she is harassed by old men who think that a book is an invitation for a conversation).
“If you want a company on the streetcar or the bus or the interurban, open a book and you’re all set.”
As I was reading this short story, I happened to be sitting on a bench in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. I had scoped out an ideal spot – not in the direct sun, no one around, a beautiful view of the sculptures and fall-colored trees all around me.
Within minutes a group of tourists arrive and decide to sit next to me on the bench while others in their group snap a few shots of the sculptures. I always get a bit frazzled when people choose to share a bench with me (especially when there is – and there was – an open and empty bench right next to mine). The tourists wander off speaking German and looking exhausted.
Next a man and his young daughter walk up. The daughter is fascinated by the sculpture, until she sees me reading… then she comes and sits directly next to me. I smiled and her dad called her over to the neighboring bench and began a loud conversation with her about how it is rude to interrupt people who are reading and does she like to read and what are her favorite books. They eventually leave too.
An aging security guard was wandering around the whole time and I could tell he took his post very seriously (and wasn’t taking any chances by leaving me unattended). When a group of young women walk up to the sculpture and one puts her hand up and touches the sculpture for a photo I hear a piercing whistle and realize the guard does not tolerate touching the sculptures. The woman was really embarrassed and starts babbling about being from Nebraska (does anyone know whether people in Nebraska tend to touch sculptures more than other states’ residents?). Through it all I can not read because, really, it was quite a funny scene.
Finally they leave as well (even the guard, who I assume thought that he could now trust me alone on this bench because I had witnessed the wrath of his whistle) and I get back to the story. The young girl finally finds a secluded spot to read – in the cemetery – but luckily I finish reading the story on that bench and then head back home where I know my warm armchair is waiting for me.