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Encounters in a Bookstore #143: The Ability to Read

It’s a rare day when I take recommendations from customers. Maybe that’s pretentious of me, but to be honest, it’s also a rare day when I take recommendations from friends. Just ask how long it’s taking me to watch a friend-lended complete set of The Wire, or how many years I let go by before finally reading one of the best fantasy novels I have ever set eyes on.

Actually, better that you don’t ask.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t listen to customers as they’re recommending something. Thus, the man buying two copies of Pete Hamill’s Forever.

He was in his late 60s or early 70s, and seemed an agreeable sort. When his daughter handed him a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s new Freedom, he happily put that on the short stack of books he wanted gift-wrapped. I refrained from making a joke about how he was buying a lot of books titled with F-words, and he proceeded to tell me that Hamill, and Forever in particular, was fantastic. I asked if he needed a gift receipt.

“Why would anyone ever return a book? Especially a gift?” he asked. “Because they already have it?” I shrugged my voice. The man shook his head, and I did not print the extra receipts, and he quickly got back to Forever. But rather than describing the book, instead he looked me in the eye. “What’s the worst thing for an avid reader to lose?” And without waiting for my answer, he provided, “The ability to read.”

Before I had a chance to say, “Let’s step down to the end and I’ll get these wrapped,” he said, “I had a stroke four years ago, and haven’t been able to read a book since. I’ve gotten okay with newspapers again, but…it’s rough.”

When we arrived at the wrapping area, his daughter appeared with a couple greeting cards. “I’m going to go pay for these,” she said and walked off. The man continued.

“I’ve been able to fool the people at work, which is something. I work in the schools, after all. One day the principal called me into his office and ‘Read this,’ he said, thrusting a paper at me.” The man chuckled. “‘Tell me what you think,’ the principal demanded. So I said, ‘Well, what do you think about it?’ He told me! So I said, ‘Well, now I don’t have to read it. You’re surely right.’ That took care of that.”

I looked at the man with a raised eyebrow and a smile, taking a break from wrapping Forever. “Really,” I said.

“Yeah. But I miss it. To be able to read. And this guy, especially,” he tapped the book I was wrapping. “Pete Hamill. He’s got this book about being an alcoholic. Really makes you consider things. But Forever. This is the book to pick up.”


Liz Mathews composes ads for many things science fiction and fantasy. Her writing can be found in magazines, catalogs, newspapers, brochures, and books; and on bookmarks, postcards, cable television commercials, and even doorhangers all across the United States and in some parts of Canada. She lives in Brooklyn but considers the cornfields of Iowa home.

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