In general, my memory is pretty terrible. I remember books; I remember their stories, their characters, whether I enjoyed the work or not. But I rarely remember details of the circumstances under which I read them: where I was sitting, what was around me, the physical, sensory scene in my real life.
But sometimes the universe conspires to give you the ultimate reading experience, putting a book in your hands at the exact time and place you will be able to experience it to the fullest. Sometimes the words on the page interact with real life in a way that sets a scene you will remember for a lifetime, bringing literature to life so vividly that the story is impressed into your reality, forever:
‘Salem’s Lot, by Stephen King: I was a young teenager when I went through my Stephen King phase. My family lived in a large house on a small island off the coast of Georgia. At the time there were only a few houses on the island, and our road was dirt, not asphalt. We were a twenty minute drive from the mainland (ie a hospital), if there was an emergency. We were isolated. My room was on the second floor, and I had a white day bed with brass knobs on the corner posts. My bed was pushed up against the window, so that when I propped my head against the pillows to read, my body lay inches from the glass, my face in the center of the single four-foot pane. On the other side of the glass, a few feet from the house, swayed a cabbage palm, its moppy head at eye level with my bed.
One night, I stayed up late eating King’s pages. My blinds were closed (Duh! Of course I closed them. I was reading ‘Salem’s Lot), and I came to a scene where a vampire hovered outside a window, tapping, seeking entry into the home. My heart pounded, my eyes darted to the glass a foot from my face, and then there came a quiet screeching on my window, like fingernails on a chalkboard. Screeeeeech. Screeeech. I threw the book down and jumped out of bed, my chest heaving, until I rememberd, “The palm fronds” (pant pant), “It’s just the palm fronds.” With each skritchy squeak on the window, my heart thumped dangerously. I envisioned the vampire floating there, only inches away, his fingernails sharpened to better scratch the glass, his smile twitching because he could smell the vigor of my fresh, pulsing blood. I have never been more terrified while reading. I think I may have hidden the book, or removed it from my room, but the screeching continued all night. Even now, twenty-something years later, when I go home and hear the sound of palm fronds on glass, I think of ‘Salem’s Lot.
Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell: I was once traveling and got delayed in Atlanta for several hours – maybe six or eight? I had brought with me the 32-pound hardcover of Gone With the Wind, and with so much time on my hands, rather than sit in the loud and bustling Atlanta airport, I decided to take the Marta train downtown to Centennial Olympic park. I lugged Mitchell’s tome with me and found an outdoor table at a café where I could watch kids chase bursts of water shooting up from the ground in the Centennial park fountain. As I read with my huge book splayed flat on a black iron café table, the moist Georgia heat pressed down on me. Condensation from my icy Coke trickled down the cup and pooled, then dripped onto the sidewalk below. I didn’t understand Atlanta, this city that seemed to be both South and not-South, with its messy tangle of inelegant roads and its fast pace and its strange mixture of old and new that I rarely experienced in coastal or rural Georgia. For four hours I sat with my dripping cup and I turned pages. I read the city – it’s pre-Sherman heyday, its burning, its invasion by outsiders, the fierce pride and dignity of its natives, reconstruction’s disregard of the South’s ways, of gentility, and Atlanta’s in-your-face rise from the ashes – on the pages of Mitchell’s book as in real life I breathed its air, drank its Coke, and listened to the laughter of its children, finally, through a work of fiction, understanding the history of this proud city that rose and fell, and then rose to what it is today.
Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris: (There are, um, a few F-bombs in this piece. Consider yourself warned.) Though it wasn’t the first time I read Me Talk Pretty One Day, my most memorable reading took place in Minnesota where, in the Mom circles I ran in, I never heard a single swear word (much to my dismay). I sat in the bleachers at the ice skating rink where my daughter wobbled back and forth in her lessons, the paperback in my lap, and I read “The Rooster,” a story about David’s brother, Paul, who “politely ma’ams and sirs all strangers but refers to friends and family, his father included, as either ‘bitch’ or ‘motherfucker.” Paul’s response to his father’s various lectures was, “‘Fuck it,’ or on one of his more articulate days, ‘Fuck it, motherfucker. That shit don’t mean fuck to me.”
The story was absolutely inappropriate for the wholesome ice rink setting, which added to its hilarity, and I tried to stifle giggles while moms chased toddlers around me. Children ran laps on the metal benches to hear the tinny clank clank clank of their feet on aluminum just as I got to the line where Paul says, “Some motherfucker told me to get the fuck out of his motherfucking face, so I said, ‘Fuck off, fuckface,'” and I laughed the kind of laugh that when you try to keep it in, it builds until your face contorts, and your shoulders shake, and tears are streaming down your face and you can’t see because your vision is blurred and you have to close the book before some nice non-swearing mom asks you what you’re laughing at. (This is not the first time this unsuccessful laughter-containment has happened to me. See: Lost Balls). Once my eyes were dry again, and I felt I could go on (because this is possibly the most fun I have ever had reading a book), I finished the story, which ends with “an enormous Fuck-It Bucket – a plastic pail filled with jawbreakers and bite-size candy bars, [because] (‘When shit brings you down, just say ‘fuck it,’ and eat yourself some motherfucking candy.’)” and I was simultaneously pleased and horrified to have the laughing fit happen all over again when a small child fell and hurt his knee, and I felt bad for him, and I thought, that poor kid needs a Fuck-It Bucket.
What about you? Have you had an ultimate reading experience?