Reader Madness: An Intervention


Artwork via Pixabay.

by Rob Colfax

My daughter has been home from college on spring break this week, and a couple of days ago, it became glaringly obvious that we needed to have a talk. The warning signs were clear: her bloodshot eyes with the dark circles underneath… her lengthy occupations of the bathroom… her dazed expression of someone not quite in touch with her surroundings… not to mention the Aldous Huxley postcard pasted to the front of her notebook.

She was keeping odd hours, even more so than usual, sleeping little and eating less. The guy who came to pick her up Friday night (supposedly to go see a movie) was one I didn’t know. He drove a modest gray compact car entirely devoid of layers of Godsmack or Incubus bumper stickers, and there were no danglies hanging from the rear-view mirror. He was clean-cut, conspicuously articulate, and brought her back home at a reasonable hour. Something didn’t add up, and I decided I’d better find out what it was.

I tapped on her door and immediately heard the rustlings of something being hastily hidden, so I barged in. She slouched awkwardly on her rumpled bed. “What?” she bleated nervously.

“You’re home early,” I remarked. “How was the movie? What’d you see?”

“Er… ah…” Her paranoid eyes darted around evasively, and I could tell she was trying to decide how to lie her way out of it.

“OK, let’s just get to it,” I sighed reluctantly. “You didn’t go to the movies, did you?”

She hemmed and hawed and gnawed at her fingernails, and I caught sight of something sticking out of her shirt pocket. “Hey! That’s my bookstore discount card!” I blustered, snatching it. Then I realized. “No! Surely not!” I gasped.

“Yes!” she wailed, tearing at her hair. “I lied. We didn’t go to a movie – it was a reading group.”

“A what?!”

“I… I’ve become a… a book reader!” she sobbed. “I’ve tried to hide it, but I’m afraid it’s out of control, Dad.”

“Oh my. When you borrowed the car to go to the mall yesterday, your mother said she saw the car on the other side of town, but I didn’t believe it.”

“It’s true,” she sniffled. “I didn’t go to the mall. I… I went to the library book sale.”

“Well, admitting you have a problem is the first step,” I comforted her, sitting down beside her to reassure her. There was something lumpy under the quilt, and I pulled it back to see what I was sitting on. She started to protest, then scooted aside in resignation as I yanked the quilt away to reveal her stash: fat, worn paperbacks of Kerouac, Nabokov, Burroughs, Vonnegut – and that was just for starters. “Good grief, kid, how much are you reading? A book a day?”

“Er – well, sometimes I go through two or three in one sitting,” she confessed.

“What?! Are you cutting class to stay in your room and read?” I demanded.

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “I read more when I’m under stress.”

“How are you paying for all these books?” I wondered.

“Well… sometimes I have to go to the used book store,” she said quietly. “Sometimes I… I trade CDs for books. If I get really desperate, I… go to the library.” She fondled the cover of Tropic of Cancer as she slumped back on the pillows. “I know I’ve got to do something about it. Lately I’ve noticed that as soon as I finish one book, I feel the urge to start reading another right away. I’m lost until I’ve got a new one to read.” She curled into a fetal position, resting her head on Bulfinch’s Mythology. “The week before spring break, I finished my last book after the bookstores and library had already closed one night. It got really bad… I couldn’t sleep. I… I went to the all-night grocery store and read two motorcycle magazines and a copy of Country Decorator Digest before the night manager caught on. I ended up buying some cheap mystery novel about a lawyer’s cat that ate library paste, just so I could read myself to sleep.” She sighed heavily. “When I woke up the next morning and realized what I’d done, I was so ashamed. I felt terrible.”

“Pulp hangover,” I nodded sagely.

“I’m so embarrassed,” she bawled.

“Well, this is just way out of hand,” I said. “Tomorrow we’re going to take a little drive. There’s a treatment center near here that specializes in this sort of thing.”

“You don’t mean – ”

“Yes. We’ve got to get you into a magazine clinic.”

“No!” she balked. “I – I can quit any time I want!”

“Oh, no, no, no – this is only the beginning,” I warned. “It starts off with just a harmless little bit of light reading like Harry Potter, and the next thing you know, you’re on to the hard stuff. James Joyce. Ezra Pound. Dostoevsky, for heaven’s sake!”

“No! You can’t scare me with that kind of talk,” she retorted belligerently. “Thomas Jefferson was widely rumored to be a reader, you know,” she challenged.

“Maybe he was and maybe he wasn’t, but do you think he’d get elected today if it became common knowledge that he was literate?” I pointed out.

“But I learn so much from reading!” she protested. “Why, did you know that the movies left out huge sections of Lord of the Rings?”

“Sweet mother of Gandalf, child, did you want those movies to be longer than they already were?” I exclaimed.

“Well, I just think you’re making a big deal out of this. I know people who read lots more than I do,” she scoffed. “How bad can it be?”

I waved her copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas under her nose. “You start out with this ‘recreational reading’ stuff and the next thing you know, it leads to writing!”

She paled. “You’re right. This could get worse. I can see that now.”

“Good. Now, tomorrow we’ll get you into that clinic. They’ll start weaning you off with magazines, and in a mere few weeks, you’ll barely feel the urge to pick up a newspaper,” I promised.

She clutched her Faulkner a bit closer and looked up at me hopefully. “But in the meantime, I could use a little something to get me through the night,” she suggested.

I considered, then beckoned her to follow me. “I’ve got a hardcover copy of Thoreau upstairs,” I whispered. “I’ll let you borrow it for the night, but don’t tell your mother.”

She followed me up to my study and eyed me knowingly as I fetched the book for her from a locked cabinet. “My, you’ve got quite the stash yourself,” she observed slyly. “I seem to remember you disappearing for a few weeks last year; Mom made some excuse about a seminar you had to attend. So do these magazine clinics really work?”

“Of course,” I insisted. “I can quit reading any time I want to. I just don’t want to yet.”


© Copyright 2004 by Rob Colfax. Republished 2007, 2013, 2015.

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