by David Finkle
[ fiction - january 10 ]
Oscar Reddin began to read when he was two and a half, not even two and a half, more like two years and four months. His parents, Oswald and Edna, were thrilled but not surprised. They had, after all, begun reading to Oscar when he was still an infant. When he was a toddler, they had sat him on their laps nightly before putting him to bed and had, pointing at words, gone through his favorite books with him. When, after a time, he demanded to be read to, one or the other of them was always free and eager to comply: He was proving to be a true son of theirs.
Oswald and Edna had read aloud to each other ever since they met. They had read poetry - John Donne, William Wordsworth, Sylvia Plath - to each other on their first date, which is when they knew they had found the person of their respective dreams. At their wedding, they had each intoned favorite, appropriate excerpts from Edward Spenser, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Emily Dickinson and Kahlil Gibran.
Although talk of prenatal influences was still uncommon when Edna was pregnant with Oscar, Oswald and Edna had somehow instinctively known to continue reading to each other, choosing books they considered suitable for a baby - not necessarily children's books, mind, but beneficial books: Jane Austen, Daniel DeFoe, Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, F Scott Fitzgerald, The Adventures of Richard Halliburton, even some Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
They wanted to raise a reader. It was clear to them both that literacy was declining all around, and they hoped, if not to turn back the tide, at least to bring a child into the world who would not add to the deteriorating situation.
They succeeded. They knew they had on the day Oscar, aged two year ten months, picked up a book he had never seen - he could read along with them the books he had seen, but they chalked that up to memorization - and started to sound the words out.
Oswald's and Edna's friends were impressed (not that Oswald and Edna ever bragged about Oscar once they declared the facts), but those with children not yet reading agreed it was likely this was a quirk of one child's precocious development and in time would undoubtedly even out into normal reading skill.
It did not, though. Edna trotted Oscar around to the public library n his third birthday and flabbergasted the head librarian, who made an exception to an old rule and issued Oscar his own library card. Oscar was encouraged to read in kindergarten and sometimes did and sometimes, preferring to join the other children at blocks and finger-painting and on the jungle gym, did not.
In the early weeks of first grade, he was skipped to second grade. This occurred so fast Oscar had no time to state an opinion about what he wanted. Before he knew what was what he had been dropped in the midst of older children, who, of course, had great disdain for someone an entire year younger with the effrontery to show them up in reading period. They took their revenge by excluding him from their cliques.
Oscar, having been ostracized for leaving his former classmates behind, found himself left to his own devices: reading.
In time he lost the inclination to have friends at all. He had acquaintances. There were other children who also liked to read, and there were children in the third, fifth, seventh grades who tolerated Oscar's reading even if they did not see the point in it and invited him, sometimes even without their mother's insisting, to parties. He usually went and usually brought a book as a present. (Any other gift struck Oscar - as well as Oswald and Edna, who, after all, were paying - as frivolous.) At parties Oscar had an okay time, although there was always at least one moment, typically many more, when he would think longingly of the book(s) waiting for him at home on his desk and atop his night-table.
Often when the time arrived that Oscar was due for a party, he would find himself at so exciting a point in whatever he was reading it was unthinkable to put the book down in favor of going to someone else's house to play pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and eat a thick slice of birthday cake adorned with a sugary rose.
He would beg Edna - and Oswald, if he were in the house - to be allowed to stay home. Sometime during those years Edna began to think maybe she and Oswald had made a mistake encouraging Oscar as much as they had to read to the exclusion of all else, but it was difficult to reverse themselves without possibly confusing Oscar as to her and Oswald's convictions.
The best she could do was suggest to Oscar that maybe it would be good for him go to the party under discussion for at least a little while. Then she would acquiesce to him yet again when he replied that she and Oswald had always said if there is anything truly good for people, it is reading. What could she say? It was too late. And it could have been worse: It was not as if Oscar were staying home to dismantle rifles and put them back together.
And so the years, and the books, went by. Oscar, who had grown up to be a thin, pale young man with straight, thin hair that fell over his glasses, read everything, and he did it at some of the best places. He read his way through high school, where he was the only possible choice for president of the book club.
He went to Harvard and could not wait until the first week of each semester when he got his syllabi and ran his finger down the lists of required and supplementary reading; he read, needless to say, at the Widener Library as well as at the house libraries. He stayed on to get his PhD in comparative literature, an opportunity to compare literature from around the world.
He moved to New York City where he took a job at a publishing house, at first reading from the slush pile and slowly advancing up the ranks to editor. He was astute, of course, at reading new works, but he was not so good at the peripheral duties - the duties, that is, he thought peripheral, like taking authors and agents to lunch in order to woo them.
He cultivated a knowledge of the bookstores of the country and the world. He had nodding acquaintances with the proprietors and the help wherever he went. He knew where all the departments were located at the best bookstores in Denver and Seattle. He always had a chat with Stuart Brent of that great book emporium when he was in Chicago.
He looked at the libraries campuses across the country.
When he was in London he saw to it he dropped into - well, dropped into was not exactly the phrase - the Reading Room at the British Museum at the minimum once every trip and chatted familiarly with the staff at G Heywood Hill Ltd on Curzon Street. He thumbed the second-hand books at Shakespeare & Company in Paris and spent hours in bookstores like La Hune on Boulevard St Germain.
He earned enough money to have a book-lined two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's West Side, where he had more than one good reading-chair and more than one good reading-lamp. Now, both his vocation and his avocation were reading, and if he were to continue to be good at either, he had to remain serious about reading.
He kept a room in a large storage house just east of the Hudson where he stored the books he had read and felt he did not have to have immediately at hand.
He joined a reading-club the other members of which always turned towards him when they were at a momentary loss as to what they should read next. Eventually he quit because he realized he was choosing so many of the selections he ended up rereading too many books he already had under his belt.
Not that he had another against rereading. He reread Remembrance of Things Past every couple of years, alternating the Scott Moncrieff translation with the Terence Kilmartin translation with the original version. He read further into Proust's oeuvre also, which was not very common - even among dedicated readers. He knew Proust's On Reading well and was surprised when he first read it to discover Proust prescribed reading as only meaningful when it prompted a return to non-reading life. Oscar thought about that for a while and concluded he did not necessarily agree.
Oscar made time for romance. He also made time for a marriage. But not much time. Initially Alice Hostetler, an editor with an office next to Oscar's, thought she had found her soul mate. After a year and a half, however, of accusing Oscar of keeping his nose in a book a few minutes too long whenever she felt amorous, she rethought the situation.
She was a perceptive editor and could read the writing on the wall: Although she had fallen in love with Oscar and he had fallen in love with her as much as he was likely to, Oscar preferred reading and always would. She asked for a divorce in order, before her biological clock started ticking arrhythmically, to find a man who ranked her equal to, or better than, the printed page. Oscar put up no argument; he knew she was right.
Untying their marriage knot was simple enough - with the exception of a few sticky moments when they were dividing their books.
One Saturday morning in that part of November when the world becomes brown and grey and quiet, Oscar was sitting in the apartment he and Alice had shared, in the spare bedroom he called his library and had furnished accordingly with book shelves. He was reading Stendhal's Charterhouse of Parma for the first time (occasionally he came surprisingly late to a classic) when a curious thing happened.
At first he was not sure it was happening it was so curious. He had been reading for an hour or more when he began to notice that as he read, the words disappeared. It was as if his eyes, as they ran over the words, picked them off the page.
It was the most curious illusion. It exhilarated him. It amused him. He began to change the tempo of his reading - now faster, now slower - in order to see the words erase themselves from the page at an altering pace. He had no doubt that what was occurring was something having to do with the eyestrain about which his ophthalmologist had issued a mild warning.
Nothing to worry about, he thought. He liked the novelty. It was fun. It was odd and comical to see the pages turning blank in his wake as he chugged past them like a train going through a mountain range.
But after a time, he had had enough - for one thing, he had lost the thread of the narrative, and that would not do. So, with his thumb and forefinger, he pinched the bridge of his nose and rubbed his eyes. He opened them. The verso page he had just read still appeared to be empty, pristine. He rubbed his eyes again, harder. He opened them - to confront an empty page. He started paging back: empty, empty, empty, empty.
He kept paging until he found the page, the sentence where the words had begun to disappear. He went to the beginning of the paragraph and started reading - words dissolved before, or was it into?, his eyes.
He lifted his eyes from the book abruptly. What was going on? Definitely something.
Oscar felt a frisson of fear rise along his spine. For an incoherent moment it occurred to him he was going blind. To prove to himself that he was not, he looked around the room. He fixed on the furniture, on parts of the furniture - the arms and legs of chairs. He looked at the prints on the walls. He looked out the window at his West Side street. He could see the buildings across from him, the windows, the curtains and shades on the windows, plants in the windows. Everything was present in sharp detail; colors were vivid.
There was nothing wrong with his eyes, he realized with relief. He looked around the room again. He looked at his bookshelves, pleasingly stacked, stocked chockablock, with books. He ran his eyes across the titles - those he could see to read.
He reversed direction. The titles he had just read - those titles he had previously read - he did not see now: They were gone.
He rose from his chair and hurried the few feet across the room to look closer at the spines of the books he had perused from farther away. There was nothing on them. He read a few more titles. They vanished.
Oscar began to get scared. He ran back to The Charterhouse of Parma and paged forward to where he had stopped, to a page where there was print. He read a few sentences. They disappeared.
He sat down. He had to think. He read a few more sentences. He thought some more. He picked up the Italo Calvino novel next to him on the end table. He looked at the title: now-you-see-it-now-you-don't. He scanned the flyleaf: presto chango! He dropped the book and picked up the Times Literary Supplement from the periodicals pile. As he read them, headlines evaporated, lead paragraphs dematerialized.
The truth hit him: Somehow, in some miraculous and bizarre manner, he was disappearing anything and everything he read.
Another truth hit him: He was retaining, as he always did, everything he read.
So that was reassuring.
Also, he believed - hoped? - that whatever was occurring would stop on its own in a couple of days. Until then he might just as well continue reading.
He had another thought. How would he remember, once he had - uh - obliterated a book what that book had been? He closed The Charterhouse of Parma, glancing at the title long enough for it to lift off, and picked up a pen. He wrote "The Charterhouse of Parma" on the cover. It remained there. Aha, he could write and the impressions would last.
He had wasted time worrying.
So he resumed reading and finished The Charterhouse of Parma that afternoon early enough to go out for one of his regular Saturday jaunts - to bookstores to see what was new. This was, of course, a professional as well as a personal interest. As an editor, he could see where books he had edited had been placed, how prominent they were, whether they were likely to catch the eye of the browsers or had to be searched for.
He headed for his large, local bookstore and when he got there suddenly had an idea. He positioned himself near a shopper and picked up a book, turning to the first page.
As he read, the print vanished, of course, but that was not what he was interested in determining. He read on and let out a laugh loud enough, he hoped, to attract the attention of the woman nearby. He closed the book, put it back on the pile from whence it came and moved off a few feet.
He picked up another book, but instead of reading it, merely pretended to read it while out of the corner of his eye, he watched the woman who was shopping. She had taken the bait: She picked up the book he had just put down and turned to the first page. She apparently read a few sentences, made an expression that could only be interpreted as meaning she was baffled as to what could have made anyone laugh, closed the book and returned it to its rightful place.
To verify the experiment Oscar ran it again on a man; the result was the same. The man registered nothing more than slight surprise that something one reader could find so amusing was so unamusing to him. Nevertheless, the man put the book under his arm and went to pay for it, not something he would likely have done were there nothing to read on its pages.
Oscar was not certain what to make of the situation. He was placated somehow and yet disconcerted. He was not ruining books for others, and he was not exactly ruining books for himself, but what was taking place was indisputably out of the ordinary, and he wondered whether he should do something about it or just let it - whatever it was - run its course.
He reminded himself that on Saturday there was not much he could do about anything anyway. He went home and read. On Sunday he read the entire New York Times, as he usually did, and even had to laugh at his ability to turn that prodigious heap of printed pages into a prodigious heap of blank pages.
On Monday he called his ophthalmologist and, without describing his condition, asked to have an appointment immediately. The ophthalmologist, who liked Oscar a great deal, complied, and within hours Oscar was sitting in the patient's chair reading the eye chart, which, as he called out the letters, turned into a tabula rasa.
He mentioned it to his ophthalmologist, who replied that, no, the letters were where they had always been.
Oscar had let the cat out of the bag, however, which he knew he would. The ophthalmologist listened without saying too much and nodding every few sentences while peering deep into the worlds of Oscar's eyes in order to run a few more tests.
When he had satisfied himself that there was nothing physiologically wrong - or, actually, worse than it had ever been - with Oscar, he took Oscar into his office and told Oscar so. He also suggested Oscar see someone else, a psychologist or a psychiatrist - just to chat about his complaint.
Oscar had read about psychiatry, needless to say, through the years and had the idea he probably knew as much about it as any practicing professional. He also knew that refusing - choosing not to - see someone could, probably would, appear to be resistance, if not to himself then to others.
Rather than having to deal with that in any way, he agreed to a session that very afternoon.
It went well enough. The psychiatrist he saw on his ophthalmologist's referral came to the preliminary conclusion that Oscar was not neurotic enough to need any kind of prolonged treatment but that the hallucinations involving disappearing ink - for what else could they be but hallucinations? - might best be alleviated by a reading hiatus.
Oscar heard this advice as equivalent to being told to take two aspirins and call the shrink (about the shrinking ink) in the morning.
He went back to the office, where there was a manuscript he had put aside in order to keep his appointments, and read. Then he went home to read the Bulwer-Lytton by his bedside.
That night, after he had finally put his book down and taken his reading-glasses off, Oscar had trouble falling asleep. When he fell asleep, he did not sleep well. He repeatedly awoke from unpleasant dreams. He did not remember them enough to know whether they had been nightmares.
He was bothered by something, but he sensed the dreams were not at the bottom of it.
He just did not feel right. He did not feel himself. He went into the bathroom, turned on the light. When his eyes became accustomed to the brightness, he looked at himself in the mirror. He scrutinized his eyes. They were bloodshot, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. When he took a closer look at his pale, thin face, however, something occurred to him dimly. It was not that his hair was askew from the way he had been sleeping. It was not the stubble on his cheeks and chin.
It was something else. What was it? It came to him. He was looking at his thin face, but it did not seem as thin as he knew it to be. He stood farther back from the mirror and unbuttoned the top of his flannel pajamas, turned this way and that. He could not be sure about what he saw.
He went over to the bathroom scale, which he never used because his weight always stayed just about the same - between 165 and 168. He got on it: 169.
That did not mean anything.
Or did it?
Oscar had never weighed as much as 169 in his life, but were there not allowances to be made with bathroom scales? He had not stood on his in so long that perhaps it had settled or shifted in some completely predictable way.
He should not be upset, and yet - that was it - his stomach was. He felt as if he had overeaten. He opened his medicine cabinet to see whether he could find any antacid - not the sort of thing he remembered stocking, but he had been surprised before at what he or others had deposited in his medicine cabinet and then forgotten about. There it was - a tin of tablets he had bought years before when he had overindulged uncharacteristically at a Christmas office party. He took a couple with water and went to bed, where he fell into a deep, comfortable sleep.
When he got up, he weighted himself again: 168.
Good: he did not need two conditions with which to concern himself.
Still, Oscar could not forget about his reading problem, because drained books were mounting up at his apartment and in his office.
All the same, he would have completely forgotten about the scale if he had not run into a friend at a restaurant a week or so later who, observing amenities Oscar himself never thought to observe, told him he was looking good and asked if he were putting on weight.
Oscar was startled; he said "No" with such alacrity that he jarred himself.
He could not wait to get home that night. He stripped as soon as he entered the house and got on the scale: 174.
He could not believe his eyes. He had never weighed 174 pounds in his entire life.
And there was no reason for it. He was not eating any differently than he ever had. It was a dull diet but a sufficient one. He was not cooking himself anything he had not been cooking himself before. He could not be for the simple reason that he never cooked. Cooking took too much time away from reading.
(He did read about food - MFK Fisher was a favorite. But cookbooks, recipes with their silent call to be used practically? No.)
Oscar scratched his head. There was only one explanation: He may not have thought he was not eating more than he usually did, but he must have been doing exactly that. Perhaps without noticing what he was doing at meals, he must have been taking extra helpings. He would make a point of watching it.
He went to bed with a good book, definitely not - just to be on the safe side - a cookbook.
Over the next few weeks Oscar put himself on a regimen that included the foods he normally ate. He simply ate them in smaller quantities.
He thought about weighing himself nightly, but he did not want to alarm himself.
He decided to weigh himself once a week - on Saturday morning. The first Saturday arrived: 178; the second Saturday arrived: 181.
He may not have wanted to alarm himself, but he saw no way around it.
Friends, acquaintances, colleagues began remarking on his weight gain. Many of them, obviously sincere, told him how good he looked now that he had filled out. He did not want to look good. He did not want to look filled out.
The third Saturday arrived. He did not need the scale. He could see well enough in the mirror. He could not deny, though he tried to, that his pants were tight in the waist.
He stepped on the scale, anyhow: 191.
For the first time in his life Oscar broke out in a cold sweat. He did not care that it was a Saturday, he called his physician, a man he saw once a year for a check-up, and reported the facts of the past weeks as he knew them. He talked about the unexplained weight gain, and only in response to his physician's asking whether he had seen a doctor recently for anything did he mention the reading problem and that it had not gone away.
His physician had two suggestions: 1) Come to his office Monday; and 2) Call the psychiatrist again - just for a chat.
The physician checked Oscar thoroughly on Monday and gave him a clean bill of health. He said he could find nothing wrong, but - in answer to Oscar's asking why then was he putting on weight - he said he would arrange to give Oscar further tests.
Blood tests and other diagnostic tests revealed nothing. Magnetic resonance imaging, on which Oscar insisted, revealed nothing.
The psychiatrist said he was not surprised at the test results and asked Oscar if he had taken that break from reading. Oscar explained that he was an editor: He could not stop reading even if he wanted to.
The psychiatrist asked if Oscar had any vacation time coming to him. Oscar said that, yes, he had accumulated a couple months of vacation days. The psychiatrist said he should take some time off, go away, do what he liked to do when he left work behind.
Oscar said that when he left work behind, he liked to read.
Once again the psychiatrist recommended a reading hiatus.
Oscar did not know what to do. It was true he had vacation weeks coming to him - a fistful of them - and since he had taken all this time and paid all this money to see doctors, maybe he should take their advice. He had a colleague at the office who kept a house in St. Bart's and was willing to let Oscar use it for two weeks. Oscar said yes and packed - clothes, the bathroom scale, nothing more.
He had never as much as walked to school without having a book to read or taken a subway ride, but here he was planning not to read a sentence, a line for two weeks. On the plane down he did not know what to do with his hands. A flight attendant came through the cabin offering magazines. Oscar, without thinking, took one. When he realized what he was doing, he put it in the seat pocket in front of him.
St Bart's was beautiful, and the house had a view of the water that took his breath away.
It also had shelves with books on them in just about every room. Oscar could not resist disappearing a few titles - Agatha Christies, Ngaio Marshes - when he first arrived. Then he exercised control and walked away from them.
He spent as much time as he could walking on the beach or gazing at the water from the deck. He could not deny its beauty, but once he had acknowledged it, there was not much else to do. He thought about books. He quoted parts of them to himself.
He did not read.
He wondered around to various restaurants that served tourists refined versions of local cuisine. He ate modest amounts of it without even reading menus. He ordered what waitpersons recommended. On the morning of the fourth day of this conservative routine he carefully positioned the scale in the middle of his borrowed bedroom and stepped on it: 185.
His heart leapt up. Because he knew a scale might register differently in a different setting, on a different floor or level, he was prepared to disregard the results if it there were just a pound or two difference. But this drop was too dramatic to ignore. He apparently was losing weight.
That day he ate as he had been eating since his arrival and steered clear of the books. It was not easy. It had not been easy. It was getting more difficult by the day.
The following morning he weighed himself again: 182.
The evidence he was gathering seemed irrefutable. Yet he tried not to believe his eyes.
Maybe he had been eating too little.
That line of thinking made, of course, more sense.
He ate a big breakfast. He ate a big lunch. He ate a big dinner.
He ordered each meal without even reading the menu.
The next morning he stepped on the scale not knowing what to hope for: 178.
He had eaten that much on the previous day and had shed three pounds.
What other conclusion could he draw? What possible other conclusion?
He was not ready to draw it. He devoted another day to eating much more than ordinary and not reading even a street sign.
On the scale the next morning: 175.
He still was not ready to draw the conclusion.
He marched to the nearest bookshelf and took down the fattest book he saw - Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, which was an ironic choice, considering what was just about to happen to the print.
He tore through its 1037 pages without stopping to have anything to eat. He finished it at three in the morning and then, with a troubled stomach, tried to fall asleep. He finally did - at five o'clock - after tossing and turning and holding his sides.
He slept until noon and then got on the scale: 179.
He was ready to draw his conclusion: No matter what the medical community thought, reading made him fat.
If he wanted to remain thin, he could never read again. Oscar thought about the ramifications.
He loved reading; he always had. He loved his work, because it involved reading? If he could not work at the publishing house, if he had to give up being an editor, what could he do? There was nothing he would want to do. He would want to stay home and read.
The question to put to himself was easy: What would life - Life - be without reading?
The answer was equally simple: Life would be nothing.
It did not take him long to make his decision.
He would continue to read.
He packed his things.
He returned to New York.
He read. He unbuckled his pants. He bought bigger clothes. He astounded his colleagues with his surprising avoirdupois. He could not stop himself; he did not want to stop himself.
He tipped the scale at 200 pounds.
He tipped the scale at 250 pounds.
He threw his scale out. He began to worry his bosses and co-workers, then disgust them, then worry them some more. He could see the disapproval in their eyes. He was aware they were discussing him when they did not think he could hear them.
He quit his job and stayed home. He began to have trouble climbing stairs. He began to have trouble breathing.
He became a blimp.
But, oh, the reading. He read novels, poetry. He read first editions. He read Moroccan-bound volumes and paperbacks. He even bought an e-book, although he did not like it much.
He read and compared all the biographies of Elizabeth I and Eleanor of Aquitaine and Winston Churchill - not to mention Virginia Woolf. He read essays and criticism. He entered into a fierce internal debate with Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Harold Bloom.
He read travel books in a wider armchair he had found necessary to purchase.
He acquired vast knowledge of children's books and science fiction. He had never read more.
Aside from a certain increasing physical discomfort, he had never been happier.
His book shelves burst with blank books. Five-foot-high columns of blank books were stacked on his floors.
In time, his book shelves burst.
So did he.
The police estimated that Oscar had been dead three days when they found him with an open copy of Pride and Prejudice in his lap.
(They, of course, had no difficulty reading the title.)
The autopsy revealed the undigested contents of, among other things, The Masque of the Red Death, Ragtime and Eminent Victorians. There was also a sentence fragment: "It is a truth universally acknowledged..."
In this instance, the universal truth to be acknowledged is that Oscar Reddin died happy, because he died doing what he most loved doing: reading.