I used to listen to this podcast where writers were interviewed about the pivotal books they read growing up. It was like a biography through books. And so many of them would speak about the summers they languished inside with a juicy book.
I do not recall having much leisure time for reading. We grew up on a farm, and when we weren’t doing farm stuff, we were doing flea market stuff. In the summers, we picked squash in the mornings and in the afternoons we worked in the flower shop. Mondays were trips to Memphis for supplies, which might sound cool except it was for silk flowers and dried eucalyptus. Fridays we would go to one of our regular flea markets or craft shows. I spent most of my time in the car.
Books were not a top priority in my mother’s house. We didn’t have a ton of books lying around – unless you counted the Holy Bible and an unauthorized biography of Waylon Jennings. And in direct defiance of this, I loved to read. I read everything: the backs of cereal boxes, shampoo bottles, my Maw’s Better Homes and Gardens magazine, and the literature that fell out of tampon boxes. Each week, a TV guide arrived with the newspaper, and I read it from cover to cover. People would ask me, “What’s on TV tonight?” and I would just know.
I begged to be allowed to go to the county library, and my mom’s response was, “But you would have to take the books back!” I will allow that the library was 30 minutes from our house and she was already livid with me when we ran up rental fees at our closest Movie World, so racking up fees for books was inconceivable. Eventually, my great-aunt took me to Walden Books where I purchased my first Babysitters Club book: Claudia and the Phantom Phone Calls. But that was a one-and-done trip. I lived for my school library day, the book fair, and the paperback rack at the grocery store.
We were busy and things needed to be picked, packed, and hauled. I wasn't punished for reading, only hassled over it. To avoid the hassle, when I did read, it was in secret or stolen moments. I’d sneak away somewhere or wait until my mother left the room to read. Then when she’d find me, nose in a book instead of whatever task I’d been assigned, I’d have to put the book away and get back to work.
And I was constantly getting busted.
And maybe what she didn’t realize is that her efforts to keep me and the books apart backfired, like big time! Books became my secret boyfriend.
But because it was a secret boyfriend, I didn’t have anyone to direct me to the classics. I was not the precocious child clutching my copy of Little Women to my chest and wishing I was Jo Marsh. Instead, I read teen romance, teen murder mysteries, Fear Street, Christopher Pike, Lois Duncan, a million Harlequin and Silhouette romances, and obviously all the VC Andrews books.
Not only were these super-soapy and high-drama stories, but these books were also the perfect size to fit in my bag, to slide under my desk to read in class, or sometimes fit in my back pocket. I would read on the bus, between classes, in bed before I would sleep, and then sometimes – if the book was good – before I emerged for breakfast.
At times, my mother would let down her guard. One year during my summer break before I started high school, my mother did not ask me to do anything for her for a week. I knew it was weird, but I also did not question it. I would wake up and she would already be at the flower shop with my grandmother. I’d grab a coffee and sit on my front porch reading the Heaven series by VC Andrews. I kept the cordless phone near me in case I was called in to work, but for some strange reason, I never got the call. I was allowed to read for hours without interruption. I was just left alone. It was bliss.
But it was a precious little respite because I was still always caught reading. She would send me to manage the booth at the flea market with strict instructions to “not spend all day reading that damn book.” or she would check me to make sure I didn’t have a book in my bag only to discover later that I was hitting up the booth where a woman was selling five pocket romance books for a $1 or picked up something from the EW James grocery store next door.
It was a relief to eventually be an adult, out on my own, and not have to hide my books or sneak away to the library or bookstore. I can visit a library or bookstore every day if I wished, instead of waiting for someone to make a reluctant trip to the mall where I would promise that I would stay inside Bookland until they were done with their shopping. In every town I have ever lived in, I've had a library card -- sometimes more than one if there was a city and a county library, or if there was also a university library. I feel a little lost when I can’t spend time at the bookstore or library – the place where the books live. During COVID when everything was closed, I couldn’t make a pilgrimage to my closest bookstore, wandering for hours and touching the spines of the books. Instead, I placed orders with the library for curbside and upped my Audible subscription to get more credits.
At times when I see people out reading physical books, I wonder if they also grew up getting caught reading. When I am walking on campus, I love seeing students who are reading books that are not necessarily for class: the hammock kids with their heavy copies of Harry Potter and the Order of the Pheonix, the readers of Colleen Hoover who come to class early for a little peace, or the student who sits on the floor outside my morning class with a different book each time. And I’m a little jealous. I still read. I still keep a book in my bag. I write my own books. But I am a little jealous of a time when – if I was lucky – my only desire for the entire day was to read as much as possible before someone broke the spell and made me return to my responsibilities.
If you were a kid who always “got caught reading” – in class, in church, at the dinner table, or while driving – I would love to hear your stories. Message me @brandibradleysboots on Instagram or @bebebradley on Twitter.
Read Books. Wear Boots.