Although I can remember my mom reading on airplanes, in waiting rooms, and in every room of our house, I always go back to the same image; she’s sitting against the pillows on her bed, the lamp near her so dim that it illuminates only her hands and the page of her book. The rest of the room remains dark and blurry.
Before I went to sleep, I would peek in my parent’s room to see if my mom was awake.
“Mom,” I’d say too loud. She would put her index finger up to her lips and finish the sentence she was reading before she placed the book on her lap.
“What are you reading?” I’d ask. She’d show me the cover of her book. Usually she was reading a novel, but she also read nonfiction if she wanted to learn more about a topic. And she seemed to know everything: all the words in the English language, every historical reference in a movie or a play, and all sorts of random pre-Google information. I once saw her buy a series on the Kabbalah from a man selling books door to door.
“What’s this one about?” I liked to ask.
“You’ll read it one day,” she’d say. Around that point in the conversation, my dad would roll over and say, half-asleep but fully irritated, “It’s bedtime.” I never knew if he was talking to my mom or to me, but she would pick up her book again, the sign that I was to leave her alone to enjoy her quiet time.
I’d whisper goodnight then get into my own bed with a book and my own quiet time. I liked knowing that only my mom and I were the only ones awake, that I was a member of our household’s unofficial Society of Late Night Readers.
I do not mean to paint a picture of a child prodigy who read War and Peace or even Pride and Prejudice into the wee hours of the night. My first memory of late night reading begins around fifth grade and includes Sweet Valley High, a series I’d procured by taking my allowance to Chestnut Court, the long gone independent bookstore from my childhood before we had the expression “independent bookstore.” In junior high, I read the entire Flowers in the Attic series and as many Danielle Steele books as I could buy or borrow from my friend Jennifer.
My mom cringed when she saw me reading those books. She tried to get me interested in what she called “serious” literature by suggesting Catcher in the Rye on several occasions. Since Holden Caufield liked to swear and disobey his parents, she figured any kid would enjoy it, but she eventually gave up when she realized that she too loved the freedom of varying her book choices. She read quick mysteries as often as she read the latest well-reviewed literary tome. I would find those “important” books in my own time, she knew.
And I did. Once I got to high school and had to read certain novels for assignments, I stayed up late with those books, too. I remember loving Catcher in the Rye not for Holden Caufield’s use of forbidden words, but for his desire to keep the people and memories he loved in a big glass museum case. I’d find favorite quotes about life in those teacher-assigned books, underline them, then copy them into a journal, a habit that continues to this day. I have snippets in there from works like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby to Tina Fey’s Bossypants. We in The Society of Late Night Readers are not literary snobs.
Like my mom, I still stay up too late reading a variety of books. Like my dad, my husband gets frustrated by the smallest beam of light in the room. And like the young version of me, my seven-year-old daughter, Rebecca, stays up past her bedtime with books. If she knows I’m awake, she finds me in some room of the house (usually the kitchen) and proudly hands me whatever library book she’s finished. She’s a proud albeit unknowing member of The Society. The worrier in me thinks she should get more sleep, but I’ll never tell her to stop reading. Another unofficial rule to our club is never telling one of our own to turn off the light.
When I lose myself in a book and when I imagine Rebecca doing the same, I see that well-preserved forty-something-year-old version of my mom reading in her bed. The purely positive image reminds me of Holden and why he spent time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As Holden says, “The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move . . . the only thing that would be different is you.”
Illustration by Christine Juneau
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