A Bookworm Speaks Her Piece

The man who doesn’t read hasn’t any advantage over the man who can’t read.*

I’ve mentioned before how I am very decidedly a bookworm. In the same post where I stated that definitively, I shared my love for the works of Catherynne M. Valente. Well, I’m back to that train of thought, because I’m in the midst of Valente’s final Fairyland book and I’ve built up quite a long list of bookish topics for this blog.

In a previous post I mentioned the interesting group discussion at the “Singles Retreat” about opening up the channels of communication between the guys and girls. Matt started everything off on the wrong foot with a statement that rankled every young woman I’ve talked to about it: Girls prefer to talk about books, while guys prefer to talk about sports. Therefore, initiating conversation is difficult, because neither guys nor girls can easily relate to the other’s conversation preferences.

I don’t normally cry “sexist” to anyone except Eli (because, y’know, he’s my brother), but that narrow-minded way of thinking set my teeth on edge. No matter how we tried to reason with him, none of us could make Matt understand that not all girls like books, not all guys hate them, and guys and girls do have the capability of talking peer-to-peer about sports. He just wouldn’t get it.

This issue came into the discussion because one of the us pointed out that whenever one of the young ladies would try to talk to one of the guys after Bible study, when many (note: not all) of the guys went to watch “the game”, she would instantly get shut down as ignorant and not worthy of joining the discussion. Matt advised us to make no attempts beyond, “Who’s playing?” and showing a childish interest in the rules. He said anything further would set the guys against us because of their deep-seated resentment for inexperienced female sports newscasters.**

Yeah. Ok.

Not all women love to read, and not all men love sports. That stereotype is where the issue really lies. My father is an avid bookworm – more than my mother, more than either of my grandmothers (near as I can figure), more than even myself. With his teacher nature, he is always searching out and taking in information, and his medium of choice is books. On the other hand, he hates sports. About the only sport he will discuss that doesn’t involve firearms is disc golf.

Meanwhile, one of his old employees, a married, sound-in-her-mind woman, was the biggest sports fan I’ve ever met. And she wasn’t the rowdy, half-informed type. She understood the intricacies, and she could debate those intricacies with the best of them. I think she was fairly into reading as well, but she preferred sports.

I am a bookworm. My conversation of choice most days would have to be books, because it’s the topic with which I am most familiar. However, I can hold my own in discussing other subjects – movies, outdoor activities, scholarly pursuits, current events, activities with church groups, work, food, and even sports (though I’ll mostly listen and try to ask intelligent questions with the last one).

So yes, I would prefer to talk about nothing but books, and I would prefer to never have to say a word about basketball or any other sport; but I know the world doesn’t work that way. (For one thing, I read a lot of under-appreciated, under-read fiction and almost no one can relate to my fangirling.) For the sake of my peers, men and women alike, who don’t fall into that stereotype of “girls read and guys play sports”, please don’t assume we don’t know how to talk about anything else. We’re adults; we understand that no conversation can last long where either participant is not investing something and offering support for the other’s contribution.

Take, for example, one of the girls in our singles group. Her main interests are reading, writing, and reenacting. When she was 12, 13, 14, 15, this wasn’t an issue. Her peers could relate to these topics well enough and they were all the fuel required for a decent conversation. When all else failed, we would jointly bemoan school.

Now, however, most of us have moved on. We’ve begrudgingly accepted our roles as functioning adults in society. Not this girl. She is about a year younger than me, yet she has never worked a job outside of a summer running paper routes; she has no educational ambitions (which is fine, as many of us are not going to college, but she doesn’t even care about learning and gaining experience in general); and she has yet to get her driver’s license. She sleeps until noon if she can and is up until 2:00 AM “adventuring”. She is wholly disinterested in any form of current events. Despite her professed love of reading, she does not seem to be well-read, nor does she try to expand her tastes with different genres. She still writes every day, but it’s the same story she has been working on since she was 15, and she shows no interest in developing her craft through criticism, experimentation, and study.

Conversations with this girl are no longer easy to hold. Everyone has heard all of her road trip anecdotes; no one is amused any longer about her insistence on serenading us with Veggie Tales tunes every time we pile into a van; and we’ve all lost any sense of patience for when she brings up her work-in-progress for the third time in a hour. At the end of the day, she has nothing new to say and no desire to contribute to discussions. The only thing she knows how to talk about well is herself. I don’t think she is intentionally so self-absorbed, but she has no experience in any other field (or an interest in learning through others’ discussions) and therefore no fuel for conversation.

Though she does frustrate me and I can only handle her in small doses, this girl has taught me a lot about myself. (Remember how I’m always saying you despise most in others what you hate most about yourself?). Yes, I do like to talk about myself, because it’s such a familiar topic, but my conversation struggle has to do with how opinionated I am. I am always voicing my opinions, whether or not they are requested or even if I have done enough research to support them.

I’ve gotten better at catching myself when I do this and learning to speak less and listen more; though I have a feeling this will be a life-long endeavor for me. Part of what prompted me to pay more attention to how I’m filling the dead space in conversation is the above girl’s example.

The other part comes back to reading. I rarely have the means with which to express my feelings on reading and why everyone should do more of it. I’ve found that reading has forced me to open my mind, to get outside of myself, and to examine ideas – old and new – from different angles. And in reading, I’ve learned so much about myself that I might not have otherwise understood.

“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” – Alan Bennett, The History Boys

In regards to conversation, there is one scene in a book which always comes to mind, and which has changed the way I approach my interactions with other people. Odd as it may be, this bit of wisdom comes from a middle-grade fantasy by Shannon Hale: Princess AcademyIn the book, it is announced that the kingdom’s prince will choose his bride from among the girls in a certain village. The eligible girls in the village, all rough-and-tumble miners and goat herders, attend an academy to learn etiquette, reading, deportment, and the other skills necessary for a princess to know.

One of their studies is Conversation, where the girls learn how people of varying ranks are to address and conduct themselves around their inferiors, superiors, and equals.

The instructor introduces the subject: “You must know your rank and that of your interlocutor. The person of lower rank always defers to the other. (…) Lessers should be certain of the name and rank of their betters. In correct conversation, you will use this often.” (…) Olana interruped the practice to croon on about Conversation, the importance of repeating the name and title, asking questions, and always bringing the conversation around to the other person.

“Never offer any information about yourself,” said Olana. “Not only for courtesy, but also to protect your secrets, should you have any, which I doubt.”

The main character mutters to a friend about how silly the lesson is, to which her friend responds: “I guess it’s important, but I don’t really like talking about betters and lessers and all. This is just good manners. It seems to me that if you want to make a good impression, you should treat people as your betters, whether Olana thinks they are or not.”

I can’t tell you how often this scene comes to mind when I’m talking with someone. It was what started me making an effort to listen more, ask more questions, and no longer fill every empty moment with things about myself.

That’s one of the reasons Shannon Hale is a favorite author of mine. She doesn’t set out to be preachy or to make a point, but she weaves her ideas so seamlessly into her engaging stories. While I love Princess Academy, my favorite of Hale’s books by far is Book of a Thousand Days. It’s written in journal form and tells the story of Dashti, a young woman serving a lord’s daughter. Dashti’s mistress is condemned to spend 7 years locked in a tower as punishment for refusing to marry a powerful lord. The setting is based on Mongolia (complete with yaks).

Dashti’s development throughout the book is a prime example of “coming of age” and “self-discovery”. In the beginning, she is meek and reserved and unmovable regarding the traditions which govern her land and its social classes. As the story progresses, she becomes more sure of herself and starts to challenge her and others’ ways of thinking. She works to find a balance between what she has always taken as truth and law and what she actually believes and knows in her self.

There is a scene between her and a young lord, after they’ve been through an ordeal together, where the conversation comes around to mothers. Dashti tells a story her mother told her.

“Or so my mama said. And I believe her. You’d be a fool to doubt her. The grasses themselves bowed before her foot touched them.”

He chuckled, and when I asked him why, he said he’d had such a mother, too. She’d gone to the Ancestors’ Realm seven years ago, but was such a powerful presence that he still thinks to check that his sash is tied straight each morning so she won’t scold him.

“And she named you Tegus,” I muttered.

“What was that?”

“I was just thinking,” I said, “how you can tell something about a woman by what she names her children. Tegus means perfect  in the naming language.”

He made a face. “I haven’t always relished that name. My cousins gave me much grief about it growing up.”

“I think it’s lovely (…) to think of your mother holding her first baby, and looking at your fingers and toes, your eyes, your lips, and saying, ‘Perfect. He’s perfect. My Tegus.'”

For the last several years, names have taken on a growing importance to me. I really think this scene has something to do with that. Mom often observes how some people act according to their name. “She’s definitely a Megan.” “Well, no wonder; he’s named Caleb.” Sure, names are not the only thing that define you, but they do have a part. And they do determine how people tend to think of you, especially before they meet you.

The whole idea of how we define ourselves is best summed up (for me) in a quote from Catherynne M. Valente. (Yes, we’re back to her!)

There’s a reason I love Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland books so much. I found them at just the right time in my life that I felt like I was growing with September through all of her adventures (even though I was roughly 5 years older than her with each installment). Catherynne has so many little bits of wisdom, little snippets with which I relate too deeply to really explain. One of my favorites is this:

“What others call you, you become. It’s a terrible magic that everyone can do — so do it. Call yourself what you wish to become.” – Catherynne M. Valente, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

Reading has taught me to not form opinions too quickly, and to have the strength of character and the humility to abandon those opinions when I’ve taken the time to prove them and have found them wanting. I have learned (am learning) how to listen to people and to be more perceptive about those with whom I interact, realizing that every one of them has a whole story inside and I may only be getting a glimpse at one page. I have learned to love the name my parents gave me, despite all of the times I’ve struggled with it and the first impressions it tends to give; but at the same time to realize that I am the only one who really can decide who I am. I have learned to defy defining myself and thus slapping a label on my chest and putting myself in a convenient box. I have learned that it is ok to not have all the answers or to always have a plan of action, and that any plans I have made are not set in stone, but that I can change my course. I have learned that we are always growing, always changing, and we can never know everything about a person at first (or second or third) glance, or even after years of being acquainted with them.

Thanks to books, I’ve learned how to face every challenge head-on. I’ve learned how to be brave.

But not everyone learns these lessons through books. For some people, it takes summers spent road-tripping and exploring; for others, it comes in years of watching their favorite athletes or politicians or actors develop their skills; for yet others, they find themselves through art, or in studying, or in their career fields. They all have stories to tell, if only someone will prove that they care enough to listen.

I know how this wall was raised between the young men and women in my peer group. It was done mostly on accident, and with all the best intentions. But it’s easier to break down than we give it credit for.

Now all I have to do is to somehow let it be known that I am perfectly happy to talk about something other than books…because, though I’ve only brought a book to Bible study once, I can’t help but think people assume that’s all I know how to talk about. (Matt certainly doesn’t help when he points to me 4 times out of 5 when mentioning bookworms.)

*Because I’m full of hyperlink-goodness today, check out this Quote Investigator bit on the origin of the above quote. I’d always seen it attributed to Mark Twain, but wasn’t sure if that was accurate, so naturally I Googled it. Now I’m not sure to whom it should be attributed, so – in the interest of fairness – I left that part blank.

** I did take some liberties with how Matt worded this. Because “guys hear blue and girls hear pink”, this may not be what he was trying to say, but it’s what we all were hearing, and he repeated it multiple times with little variation.

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