The uncomfortable reader

How do you arrange your body so you can lose yourself in a book?

By Beth Kephart

Published June 21, 2000 7:05PM (EDT)

Jeremy, my book-wary 10-year-old, wants to know how to sit when he reads. He asks me flat out from his miserable sprawl on his bed. "I am just not comfortable," he complains. "I just don't get it. I don't."

I study the crooked line of him, his grave exasperation -- how he's propped up his head with one of his hands and smashed his book to the quilt with the other. Every time he needs to turn a page, he has to adjust all his weights and all his levers, get use of both hands, separate the one page from the rest, flip it over, grind it down, replant his elbow and start again. A shadow falls across the words. He grumbles, pitches his body to the floor, lies on his back, lifts his book above his head and squints as if looking at the sun. His arms quiver, twitch, visibly ache. They grow weary. He looks at me. He half crab-crawls to a barren patch of wall and bangs his back against it, throwing his lean colt's legs out straight.

"It's so much better when you read to me," he grumbles and whispers, then sighs to prove his point. "All I have to do then is be in your arms and wait for the story to come."

Over the next several days I make it my business to understand the ergonomics of reading: the hands that hold; the fingers that turn; the spine that curves or straightens; the legs that must forget that they are construed of flesh and blood. At the neighborhood library, under the cover of a book, I watch the way a woman with flowing hair paces as she reads, up and down, up and down, rifling a breeze through the stacks. I watch the way old men gather at the chest-high reference shelves and lay out their books and papers and maps, like so many priests at their pulpits. A boy with a leg-long cast hobbles in, pinching a portable raft with his fist. He finds a swath of natural light and settles, the air from his chair fast escaping, his crutches now tossed to one side.

"There are plenty of ways to read," I report back to my son.

"Sure," he says. "Sure. But which one's comfortable?"

I remember a book in our basement, an extraordinary collection of Andri Kertisz photos. The unwitting inventor of the candid photograph, the Hungarian-born, self-taught Kertisz focused his lens on what was true. An old woman in a hospital bed in France, upright with the help of pillows, a black blanket on her shoulders, a book held like a prayer in both her hands. A man halted before an outdoor cart of used books on New York City's Fourth Avenue, his face adorned with thick eyeglasses, his right hand holding a magnifying glass, his left palm cradling "Comradeship," his nose breathless inches from the page. There are the readers in Washington Square backed up against trees, strewn over grass. There's the S-shaped woman in Paris, 1928, the white page in highest contrast against the black folds of her skirt.

"There are so many ways to read," I assure Jeremy. "So many, I can't count them."

"Sure," he rolls his eyes, then snuggles back into my open arms and waits for me to read to him.

So I ask my friends, who, come to think of it, I've hardly noticed reading. I can't imagine how Susan sits or Barbara does, or where in the house Joanne puts herself inside a book. So I send them and others little messages, urgent pleas, and while I wait for their replies, I read "The Enormous Egg" out loud and tell Jeremy I'm working on it. Still.

"Oh Beth," my friend Susan, the book critic and writing teacher, messages back. "What a question you ask: how do I read? Well, I hardly ever sit when I read. I usually crawl under the covers in bed next to my reading lamp and hold the book above my head and prop my arms up with pillows. I can read like this for hours. And also, I really liked reading when I was pregnant, kicked back in a worn-out Lazy Boy with a book propped up on my swelling stomach, and I also love to read in a really hot bath, but I'm always dropping the books into the bath water and they swell up like little accordions. I had to stop doing that with library books."

Jayne Anne, my comrade in secrets, divulges a part of herself I now see clearly, and which I explain to Jeremy, who regards me doubtfully. "How I sit when I read?" she writes. "Preferably in bed, Dahn Center (Korean meditation), heated rice pillow on my stomach (that knotted flux of emotions), pillows behind, covers pulled up against the 30-below wind chill factor outside the draft windows -- in the dark, just my light on, everyone else asleep. How I read more often? In the car, waiting at the train for my commuting teenager, just hoping that he's on the train, that my cell phone won't ring with a change of plans, that he has his gloves, his hat, even his coat ..."

You see? I say, in so many words, to Jeremy. There's reading as a privilege, and reading as something we steal, and then there are adjustments we make, on behalf of a story, sighs we don't sigh, because it's worth it. Reading is the occupation of the mind, the conundrum of the body, the thing that gets us from here to there. You make your body work with a book, with light, because, in the end, I say, it's so exciting.

"I'd rather play soccer," Jeremy says. "Now that's comfortable."

"But reading's so fun," I say.

"It hurts my arms."

"Well then we just haven't found the right position yet."

"I read prone," writes Alex, my journalist friend. "On our worn, mouse-infested couch. My head propped on a pillow, my legs covered by a blanket, often relying on whatever sunlight makes it through our windows. The other place I love to read is on planes and the El. It's the only time I read sitting up (not that I have a choice.) On the El going downtown, I know enough to sit on the north side of the train; otherwise the sunlight hitting the moving train will make me nauseous."

"Don't you love that?" I say to Jeremy, "the idea of reading on a train? I think you could do that, don't you? That sounds pretty easy. Whenever we're on a train, let's take a book, and you can read."

"It's more fun looking through the windows, Mom," Jeremy opines. "Or listening to you tell a story."

"Try to understand," I tell him, growing frustrated by my own poor persuasive powers. "Listen."

And then I read him the message my friend Kate sent, about how she sits (but only when her house is clean) in a low-slung Victorian rocking chair (green velvet upholstered, bought specifically for rocking babies and reading) in her bedroom, natural light from the north, a view of the bay that she's not looking at. I read him what Barbara says about folding one leg up under the other on a wide wicker kitchen chair, one hand fiddling with her hair, the other fiddling with the cover on the book -- all of this going on until the day grows too dim and she takes her book to bed and lies in the light. I tell him how Ken and Inga share a couch and a lamp when they read, and how Joanne, in bed, slides against a pillow backrest until she's violating every chiropractic rule, and how Amy won't read a single word these days unless she's got her poodle on her lap.

"You can be an outlaw when you read," I say. "You can do it any way you want."

"Show me how."

So we troop around the house together, looking for the best way to read. "Here's my personal, time-tested favorite position," I tell him, throwing myself horizontal over the puffy loveseat couch that crowds my writing office. I fit my neck upon one armrest, fling my feet over the other. "See how my knees come up to make a perfect support for the book? See how my head is upright so that I won't fall asleep? See how the window draws in the sun? See how there's quiet in here?"

"You're taller than me, Mom," Jeremy says when he tries it. "That couch just does not work for me."

So then I demonstrate my lunch-time position. I pull a chair to the kitchen table, plant my feet on the floor, balance a spoon in my right hand, a book in the other. "My feet dangle," Jeremy says, after he's tried this out. "I'm not too comfortable here."

"Okay," I say. "Okay. Okay." And round and round our six rooms we go, trying out this couch, this chair, this rug, this stool, trying out the pace, the stand, the recline. Finally, we're back up in Jeremy's room, where there are soccer sheets and soccer quilts, a soccer rug and soccer trophies. There is also (courtesy of my mother) a soccer bean bag chair, and Jeremy, disappointed, flops down in this, and sighs.

"Stay right where you are," I say, after a few moments. "Don't go anywhere." I trip over to his shelves and retrieve a book. A little paperback, light as a feather. It's "Soccer Shock," by Donna Jo Napoli, something that must appeal to him, something I fit into his hands while his legs lengthen out and his body sinks and sinks into beans.

He rolls his eyes.

He turns one page.

And then he turns another.

"How's that?" I say. "How's that? Okay?"

But he doesn't say a word because I've lost him to the story.

Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

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