At Patrick Henry College, assigned reading hangs from your neck and dribbles from your elbows. Only con artists and prodigies handle their reading well: The rest make up for their expenditures by sleeping 10-hour nights for two years after graduation without ever feeling fully rested.
Ferocious greed for my covers provokes me to run to bed. Once in bed, light out, I scrawl like a blind woman three sentences into my diary. They are briefer than Hemingway's. "Henry James: pure terror for only five dollars. Tomorrow dawns quick. May God be with me."
I don't like to read. To read, for me, is to shake down imagined worlds like coconuts from a palm tree. The work is hot and antsy, and only tastes good long after the labor. Some wise scholar whose name my brain has edged out called reading an "exercise in teachability." I find the pleasure of reading hard-acquired, like listening to Bob Dylan. The painful investment resembles stocking the airless loft of a barn with hay.
My professor gave me a mandatory introduction last week to Henry James. I tacitly agreed to read The Turn of the Screw, only because it was short. I liked the book so much I sacrificed slow hours to it, shoving other school duties out of the way so I could absorb its full terror.
As my hand thrills to hold my virgin copy of The Brothers Karamazov, this week's assignment, I can hardly fathom reading its entirety except in some far-off season of prolonged mononucleosis. My Literary Criticism book-designed, says my professor, to "keep me off the streets"-deserves slow digestion. I would like to carry it everywhere in a life of leisure and break up the binding with use. But I predict no life of leisure. Maybe if I got onto the streets and into prison I could read without disruption. If I got solitary confinement, maybe.
Despite time constraints, both my college bill and my conscience insist upon the rigor of the late-night library. One night recently I felt at home in the creaking dialects of the Mississippi as I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I sat between two shelves that can wind together, prevented from slumber only because I feared someone would come along, wind the shelves, and smash me. When I read Moby-Dick I crawled beneath a computer desk and sat immobilized in the fetal position, lest I abandon my task by talking to the librarian.
When I refuse to read (for I am more con artist than prodigy) I wring my duty off my hands like Lady Macbeth. I blame my trouble on whoever assigned the reading to me. I cry, "How can you expect me, in the everlasting sleepover and Cinderella Ball of college, to pay attention to long-dead geniuses with no gifts for brevity-and retain my imagination? After all, won't my education, when it does nothing for my limbic system, drip off my brain like wet snow off a warm cabin roof?"
I cannot pretend to this objection for long. My dopamine still springs for stories: for Dido and the other ancient women, missing their men, knotting bed sheets into nooses and falling blindly over blades. I cannot resist the company of Melville's tattooed savages, O'Connor's misfits, and Dante's penitents. I might always be a bit of a crook when it comes to reading, but I treasure my pile of coconuts.