Would the Real Romantic Please Stand Up?

There is a cynic living in my head, right behind my eyeballs, trying to sneer her way out into this vast world so she can look down on and complain about any number of things that might cross her path. This is the same cynic that has held in her mouth a soured taste for reading after gagging on too much rhetoric and literary betrayal. This cynic has criticized a person (me, the person is me) for having lived in a house for two years without organizing her books, and therefore does not want to allow this person to get any new books.

“They’ll be disappointments anyway. Why bother,” says the cynic.

I often wonder if I am so harsh in criticizing myself because I will not allow the cynic out of my mind in order to criticize others, so she has turned on the cage she is in and has begun gnawing and clawing in revenge, or a desperate attempt to escape. I try very hard to temper my cynicism, probably because I have been around cynics, and I have left feeling drained and deflated.

I once had a hopeless romantic living in there somewhere. In college the cynic was born and the romantic has been on life support ever since. She sits, shriveled and dehydrated, in a corner of my mind. I often forget she is there. She is untouched, unmoved, by all but the most beautiful of sunsets, or fireworks displays. Every now and then she surprises me, with a mild heart palpitation should a dramatic movie reach its denouement, or the start of a tear should the dramatic characters die dramatically.

Before the cynic, I was moved by any number of small things. Moved by the breeze, I would lift my head higher to feel it in my hair. Moved by the rain, I would walk in it until I was drenched, and then I would be moved by the shape the water took as it streamed down the window while I changed my dripping clothes. I was moved by stories, by language, and its liquid quality. Language could move around and through me, and I was thirsty for it. I wanted it to show me something new, and show it to me in a familiar way. I wanted it to take the familiar and shift it until it was new again.

Words would pour out of me as if my mind were a downspout, and in an act of replenishment I would grasp for anything to read, to consume.

Soon, as is often the case, my education got the best of me, and I began to find fault in the words. I began to discern the manipulative patterns in the score played over the dramatic death scene. I could see the easy way out for the author, point to the chapter, the scene, where they seemed to have given up, and given in, and gave their precious characters the easy way out. Like a passionate moviegoer yelling at the underwear-clad teenager, I would cry out, “Don’t go in there!” if I could see the author was heading down a road not so much “not taken,” but the road we’ve all read down before.

There is, however, one corner of my romance with books that the surly cynic has never touched. Old books, used books, well-loved, and dare I say it, written in, are my favorites. Someone else’s reactions jotted in haste in a margin are as dear to me as the original author’s labor of love. I run my finger over the penciled in words and in an instant a thousand stories stir in my imagination about the hand that wrote them, the place they sat, and what led them to surrender this book.

This past summer to a small degree I lifted the self-imposed ban on buying books when our town library had a sale, set up in tents behind the old firehouse. A storm was on its way the day we went, and it had been raining for weeks, on and off. The ground was muddy and the stroller kept getting stuck, my son was bored, and the tables were put too close together for me to even try to get the stroller between them. But, oh. All those books.

I walked away with a modest pile, including a volume of Kipling stories, Out of Africa,  a “pocket” version of the Bible from the 1950s, and a paperback copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I paid my $1.50 and got us back to the car before the rains came down again.

In September I finally got around to reading one of my “new” books, and was treated to what every book romantic usually only dreams about. Opening the cover to The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I found a letter stapled inside.

It reads:

I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did. Don’t read it as a novel, try to grasp the ideas he’s putting out. That way you’ll see that you are not as crazy as you might sometimes think. I’m really glad that I met you this year. See even going to Florida for a year can be cool. Hey, you are a super cool girl, so don’t ever let anyone tell you different and never change. (After this there is a phrase in Spanish. I can only make out “un besa” but the rest in ineligible. Sigh. One kiss what, Antonio?!)

It is signed “Antonio” and dated 8/25/2001.

And now I am in love with this book. I read it, it’s good, the language in the title alone makes me want to get to work turning phrases of my own into literary music. But the novel itself is worth only half of what this personal scribble is worth. Thanks for keeping the romance alive, Antonio.

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