Because today's my day, and because our wedding anniversary is only a month and a half away I'm sharing another essay written by my husband several years ago. He says that he wrote this as a commentary on elitism in literature. He also says that he's poking fun at himself. Except that, after it was first published, everybody who read it saw it as being about me.
I still can't figure out what this kind of writing's called. Fictional non-fiction is the best I can come up with. Whatever it's called, I hope you enjoy it.
- My wife, the book-eater
She is in a ravenous mood again. She often is. The stack of books on the small table on her side of the bed has just become smaller. She is starting on a new one. Around her lie the remains of what used to be a book. Wisps of paper, shards of cover stock, bits of binding glue, all covered in a clear viscous fluid. Another hapless victim.
Starting another book? I ask, my eyebrows furrowed as deeply as I can make them furrow. I wish I had thicker eyebrows. “Envious?” she asks, bright-eyed. “No,” I snap, turn off my nightlight, and will myself to sleep. A half-hour later, I succeed. In the morning I rise before she does, and as I walk to the door I need to tiptoe among the remains of Science Fiction Masterpieces on the floor. I heave a sigh.
Friends ask me if my wife is a voracious reader. They don’t know the half of it. My wife treats books unconscionably. To her they are not to be savored but devoured, with large chomps, with gurgling and gasping, while making noises one does not make in polite company. She takes the whole mass in her mouth, and, unmindful of manners, picks the poor book clean with tongue and teeth, then spits out the gooey remains. One spots a fragment of a page, a scrap of the spine—of The Chronicles of Narnia or Starship Troopers or Ender’s Game—on the floor in the living room, in the kitchen, in the study, in the bathroom, in the bedroom, transforming any given room in the house into a crime scene.
Vicious is the word.
Early on a Saturday afternoon, as I descend the stairs to the living room, pondering the ambiguity of Macbeth’s ending (are peace and order restored to the kingdom after the regicide is himself overthrown, or does the cycle of assassination, usurpation, and internecine struggle for the throne continue well into the future?), I will spot her sprawled languidly on the living room sofa, masticating contentedly on Arthur C. Clarke or Ursula LeGuin or Anne McCaffrey or J. K. Rowling. With a heroic effort to hide my disapprobation, I move quietly to the stereo and put on Bach’s Mass in B Minor, hoping she will take the hint, see the light, pronounce her kyrie’s, and mend her ways. Long ago I made the discovery: hints are lost on her.
We both carry books in our bags whenever we go out. I will have Henry James or T. S. Eliot or Heidegger with me. She will be packing Neil Gaiman or Madeleine L’Engle or Ray Bradbury. We will come home hours later, her bag invariably lighter than mine. Not that she is in any danger of depleting her stock. She has more books than I do and has gone through a larger proportion of hers than I have of mine. That is only to be expected. When you go through your books as intemperately as she does, and when I read as slowly and deliberately as I do, one expects her to be the faster one.
Whatever did I see in this woman nearly a decade ago when I asked her to be my wife? Yes, I do realize that one does not look for a clone of oneself as a marriage partner, that one is inevitably drawn to one’s opposite, one’s complement. Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Beatrice and Benedick, Heloise and Abelard. But must my spouse be so far to the other end of the personality spectrum? Must she be so different from me that the gulf between us exists as a taunt? And why must I be the only one between the two of us to be bothered by it?
The crux of the matter is this: she does not understand that books are founts of learning. They are temples, reliquaries, bearers of the wisdom of the ages. They are to be regarded reverently, treated with great care, read quietly but attentively. Your surroundings must be quiet, you should be sitting up in a good chair that supports your spine, and you must be alert. If any of these conditions are missing, then the whole enterprise is doomed to fail. You will invariably sleepwalk through the book and do it a great dishonor. Having graduated a literature major and being on my way to an advanced degree from a most reputable university, I should know.
My wife, however, will not be ruled. She does not show books the proper respect. She chooses for her delectation, not the classics (no matter how often I tell her that she can dip into my library any time she wishes) but science fiction, fantasy, children’s stories. What’s worse, she opens the books with little regard for the spine, for the paper, for their longevity. And she takes them to bed, and so cannot possibly summon the requisite attention. And she refuses to listen to my pleas.
I need not argue what happens to a person who prefers Asimov to Aristotle, Herbert to Homer, Tolkien to Tolstoy. The mind simply turns to mush, having very little nourishment to live on. The mind is filled with flights of fancy instead of thought. True, her selections are probably lighter, more entertaining. But then, one does not go to Tolstoy hoping for a good time. One goes for the beautiful misery, the exquisite suffering, the difficult wisdom gained from the slow slog through dense literature that is the highest reward of the learned mind. But being learned is not my wife’s ambition. She has no such lofty aspirations.
And so it goes on. Once in while we will be at different sections of a bookstore, I in literature or classics or philosophy, she in science fiction, fantasy, bestsellers. I will browse discreetly, quietly, not wanting to call attention to myself. I will peruse a new translation of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, Harold Bloom’s commentary on Shakespeare’s plays, or the new paperback edition of Dostoyevsky’s Karamazov. But when I hear snorting, lipsmacking, and exclamations of “Ooooh!” or “Goody!” from the other side of the room I roll my eyes and hope that no one casts accusing glances at me. I look furtively to my left and right to see if there is a side exit. Moments later I duck out of the store, hie myself to a nearby coffee shop, and cool my heels (and my head). Not too long after, as the cup in front of me slowly empties and as I wonder whether I prefer the Fitzgerald translation of The Iliad to the Mandelbaum, which of the Four Quartets I like best, or whether Mozart’s Requiem is essentially classical or romantic, she approaches, a look of satiety on her face. She sits beside me. I sigh, then put a napkin to the corner of her mouth and wipe off the saliva and bits of pulp. She looks me in the eye. Then she gives me an impossibly soft, unbearably sweet look and plants a wet one on my cheek, as if to say—I don’t care if you’re a fuddy duddy, you big lunk.
I suppose there are many reasons far less compelling to stay married.
Illustration by Alan M. Clark