Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I Read About It

One thing I have always known and will always remember about my mother is that she is a voracious reader. I see her now in my mind's eye, sitting at my parents' long dining room table, a stack of newspapers and magazines piled up to one side. Here are the publications I remember her reading over the years, most of them simultaneously: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, USA Today, the New Yorker, PeopleTime, MoneyNewsweekBusinessWeek, Inc., and the Economist, along with assorted trade magazines and investment newsletters. I'm not sure I ever saw her flipping idly through, say, Vogue or Cosmo—sometimes Vanity Fair, for Annie Liebowitz's photos—but occasionally she did pull a copy of the National Enquirer from the rack in supermarket checkout line, add it to our groceries, and absorb its sordid content in the privacy of our home. This, mind you, is a list of just the periodicals—and I know I am missing some important ones. My mother would also alternate between fiction and biography titles. All the reading consumed a fair amount of time, but she was always efficient, and still always available to me if I wanted to talk to her about something. As a result of all the reading, my mom gathered vast knowledge; she often had exactly the right insights into trends, be they in finance, culture, or politics. Also, it must be said, she collected some pretty odd tidbits. Two in particular I will always remember, especially as they got reported around the same time: dwarf tossing and toad licking. They are both exactly what they sound like; the former as some kind of warped entertainment, the latter for a hallucinatory high, provided you got the right toad, somewhere in the desert. I generally assumed that these juicy bits came from sources like the Enquirer or the Post (in my most highbrow mode, I used to tease that there didn't seem to be much to choose between those two). And I was particularly skeptical if, after telling me about some item, and after my asking how she knew such a thing, my mom said in an elusive way, "Oh, I read about it." The implication was that she didn't quite remember where she'd read it—conceivable with the volume of reading she did—and also it was her way of asserting that no, of course she was not making it up, whatever it was. If it was found on a printed page, then there was some shred of authority behind it. (This was in the pre-Internet era, when the publishing industry still had control over information, plus time and standards in the production cycle to do thorough fact checking; we were all more trusting then.) But eventually, my father and I cottoned on to the fact that "I read about it" could also serve as code speak for "Yes, if you must know, this particular piece of information was found while reading tabloid trash, but no I am not going to admit it." The four words "I read about it" became a catch phrase in the family—one we still pull out from time to time as a gentle way of teasing if we're at all incredulous about someone's assertion of obscure fact. I am happy that my mom provided this model, though. And amazed. Now that I am a mother myself, I have no idea how she ever found the time to read as much as she did. It takes me a full week to get through the Sunday newspaper alone, and most weeks I don't even manage that. I scan headlines, mostly on the computer, often on the go. I keep pace with a different world. But still, no matter how busy I get—no matter how far from the constant image of my mom spending the morning with the papers, turning pages at leisure with a cup of coffee at her elbow—the information-gathering impulse is still strong in me, the compulsion for self-education, and it serves me well.

1 comment:

  1. As a follow-up: I heard from both of my parents on this one. Each with their two cents, which I reproduce here.

    Dad: "It must be a Greek thing as I remember first hearing this from your grandmother, who when asked about so many things, responded: "I read (present tense) about it."

    Mom: "Only one thing I must add – the dwarf tossing item actually (if you can believe it) came from the New York Times. Do you remember the big thing I got into with [woman's name omitted] when I mentioned the article while we all from [company name] were out to dinner? She was rude and said she thought I was making the whole thing up and that it must have come from trash mags, blah, blah, blah, and [second woman] got mad, so the next day she spent the whole morning searching for the issue the story appeared in. She actually found it in the NYT (and that's before the Web!) and sent it out to [first woman], which loosened her up for quite a while. It was really an out-of-the-way big favor. All very funny."


    I also remember that the newspaper article on the dwarves raised issues about health insurance and other legalities involving assumption of risk, bodily harm, and so forth. Am I imagining that the tossing happened at some redneck bowling alley? Anyway, choose your media--New York Times or National Enquirer, better yet both--and follow in the footsteps of three generations of women in my family: just "read about it" (whatever "it" turns out to be)... somewhere! And enjoy the unexpected that will surely come of it.