Reading, a Love Story

Older Woman Reading
photo by Verbaska

I suspect most of you have a dangerous habit. You get an URGE, your cautions are clicked off, you are impelled by an irresistible chain. You indulge, synapses sizzling. You are spent, but oh, the afterglow. What have you done, you naughties? Why, you’ve been reading. It’s a harder habit to drop than smoking.

That thought occurred to me when I saw my mom reading with a big magnifying glass, craning her head thisaways and that to reach the words. My mom is 91, and her eyes are shot, but she’s still jonesing for words. Even though she listens to audio fiction (and digs it), she still wants to take in the text with her eyes, to turn up the heat in the brainpan where metaphors sizzle, to ride on a line of words and feel their curves in the wind. Readers: shameless.

And I bring my mother up, because I am the hopeless crack baby of her addictions: she exposed me early to the intoxicating pipe of reading.

 And I bring my mother up, because I am the hopeless crack baby of her addictions: she exposed me early to the intoxicating pipe of reading. I have lacy memories of her sitting on the couch, engrossed in her book. Engrossed at least until I started eating the ashes out of the nearby fireplace, as she insists I did. Well, I had to do something to get some attention.

There’s the treachery. Reading’s a seduction by atmospherics: seeing someone voluntarily repeat an action over and over toggles a switch in your system that whispers “And you can do that too.” When drooling was the most reasonable reaction, I had the usual suspects of kids’ books read to me, followed by reading fairly early on my own. I’d been very aware that my mom read big books, tomes—it seemed that she was into this thing and deep. Later I realized that many of these worthies were Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which seemed to take some luster away. (Do you know that To Kill A Mockingbird was a Reader’s Digest book? What did they take out, the mockingbird?)

Reading: At This Point, You Have No Choice
I did hazily understand that people do have a choice in their pursuits; my mother still made plenty of time for martinis and poker. But once it gets a little beyond choice, only reading fulfills the addiction caused by reading—watching “Ice Road Truckers” episodes is a weak substitute. Being word-hungry is a little like loving ice cream: when you eat a little, you want more. Same with words.

I went from lolling in the aisles at my local library reading all the dinosaur books to reading all the sports biographies to reading comic books to reading literary fiction. A heavy cardboard refrigerator box in my back yard—until the winter rains turned it into a castle of mush—was my adolescent reading retreat. I’d bring a clock, a pillow and a book out to the box, and high-dive into a narrative. Go under the surface and then—gone.

Of course, drinking deep draughts from the flowing fire hose of words invariably impels one to point the hose outward as well. [Note: there is nothing in the least sexual about that last line. Move along now.] You want to pour your own words on a page, and see if they float or sink. Or stink, which is often the case in the early stages. [Second note: these early stages can extend a mite longer than desired.]

Reading Broadly Isn’t Reading About Broads
But reading broadly, reading deeply does give you a nose for what works in a narrative, or what stinks. And the glory of it is, what works can be Michael Chabon’s headlong rush of words, canoeing through subordinate clauses and asides, cornering hard and crashing in a smiling heap, or Marilynne Robinson’s seven-word grace note of a sentence, a petal that opens with a hint of faint color, felt like that soft wind you only sense when the breeze stops blowing. So many ways to shuffle and deal the cards of literature.

Earlier, I did make fun of the reality shows, but I don’t want to be quite so sniffy. I once read a great annotated version of Lolita, where in the notes the editor said that Nabokov was known for the eclecticism of his reading. He described a colleague seeing Nabokov returning to his flat, his arms filled with pulp magazines, saying something like, “Great ads!” Who knows, your next character’s name might come from the name of a popular new deodorant.

Writers hear of those surveys concerning the high percentage of people who don’t read, who read less than a book a year (just the odd-numbered pages), who have read no books after high school. Ignore such. Write for the readers who have the track marks on their eyes, who get the shakes when a new Stephen King novel is promised (and who shake more when it’s read), whose thou after that loaf of bread and a jug of wine is a book. They are there, and in numbers.

I was never good with math, but here’s a formula that has promise: good reading + more good reading can lead to good writing. You can even try that trick that says writing out passages of fabled writer’s words can make you a better writer too (though don’t try and publish some filched Alice Munro as your own on Kindle Direct).

Reading: the designer drug with no expiration date. So suck the sweet plum of the pages, and savor the sugar of words.

Well, good WUers, is reading your ice cream? Is it an activity for which there isn’t a substitute? Do you ever read and eat ice cream at the same time? And was it mama or papa who didn’t raise no fool?

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About Tom Bentley

Tom Bentley is still trying to figure out what flavor of writer he is, but so far he’s a short story writer, novelist, essayist, travel writer, journalist, and business copywriter. He edits all that stuff too. His new book, Think Like a Writer: How to Write the Stories You See is available as an ebook on Amazon. His singing has been known to frighten the horses.

Comments

  1. says

    A reader after my own heart. When I was a kid, I read in the car, I read at night with a flashlight in the closet of the bedroom I shared with my sister. My daily trips in the summer were to the neighborhood library and the ice cream store. It breaks my heart to talk to someone who doesn’t like to read.

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    • says

      Mary, yes, I was the kid who had a novel stuck between the pages of my textbook at school, lost in my reverie until the teacher would ask what the value of “x” was in the blackboard equation. “Uh, does it start with a 1?”

      Lucky for me I can keep track of numerical page sequences in novels just fine. (Though character algebra can be tricky.)

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  2. Karyne Corum says

    This brought me such sweet memories of my mother reading seven books a week right up to the last days of her life. She gave me my own predilection for devouring books in great huge gulps like a Halloween candy feast. But I will write for the not so common reader. The one who may only indulge in one or two candy bars a year because I want the taste of my word crafting to linger on their palate and maybe make them break their fast a whole lot more frequently. Great post!!!!!!

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    • says

      Karyne, zowie, your mom was a wordmonster! Seven books a week is one raging river of reading. She must have seen stories everywhere, even when she wasn’t down in the basement of a book. Keep crafting that candy for the next round of ravening readers.

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      • Karyne says

        She was Tom. I still don’t know how she did it. In some ways, books became her best friends after my Dad died. She was a great critic for my work!

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  3. says

    Tom-

    There is reading for pleasure, then there is reading analytically.

    Which ever one engages in I thinks its beneficial to read widely. As a young guy in publishing I read many manuscripts at high speed, churning out readers reports. Often my reports would become the basis for detailed rejections or even revision letters (back in those days before e-mail). I learned to analyze on the fly.

    I also read a lot of stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise read. Romances were sexiest when they teased. Horror scared not with immediate gore but by first establishing everyday realism (see Ira Levin or Stephen King). Techno-thrillers worked not because of hardware details or an alphabet soup of military acronyms but when their characters were believable.

    Love words. Love reading. But also love figuring out why some novels work while others do not. Analysis can itself be a different kind of pleasure, one that only other novelists will ever know.

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    • says

      Donald, yes, it’s a funny (but necessary, as a writer) feeling to roll with the flow of a writer’s words, but then pause and parse them for their story crafting. I’m a slow reader anyway, but I will often read a paragraph that I admire over and over again, wondering “how does she do that?”

      And of course, not simply a stellar paragraph, but how character stresses are played sharp or subtle over the work’s course, what place place plays in spicing the story, all that good stuff. I do congratulate myself when I recognize what magic tricks a writer has spun to stick a reader to the story, but alas, it’s so hard to replicate them. But I’m with you all the way on the pleasure of story analysis (as long as the first half of that word doesn’t take too punctilious of a hold).

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      • says

        I have to split the two; I can’t analyze while in thrall, and sometimes, I don’t *want* to analyze. Well, at least not ’til later.

        A lesson I learned from Josh Kaufman’s “The First 20 Hours” is that immersion alone doesn’t necessarily improve our skills. It’s focused intentionally practice which does that.

        Reading as a writer is very different from reading as a reader.

        Watching TV as a writer (if it’s good stuff) has been a real hoot, though.

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        • says

          Joel, yeah, I sometimes can’t help but be in the handcuffs of thrall, yet squirm about trying to pick a story’s lock at the same time. And now you’ve given me a great excuse to watch tv—as an astute writer of course. But never the eyeball-fattening stuff (unless the shades are drawn).

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        • says

          I’m glad you stated immersion alone doesn’t improve our skills. I get so caught up in the stories I couldn’t begin to think about working on my skills. A lifelong reader, as are my mom and my sister, reading is like breathing to me.

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  4. says

    It started with books, and I think that’s how it’ll eventually end. Books were an escape way back in childhood, and though I don’t require that escape now in the same way, they still are an escape. I often wonder if I had to choose (the horror!) of reading or writing, which would I choose? . . . who can make that choice?

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    • says

      Kathryn, love the Biblical cadence of your first sentence. And yeah—the horror of the reading/writing choice. I have enough trouble trying to decide whether a colon or a semicolon, so thank the stars I’m not saddled with that one.

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  5. says

    LOVED this! What a fabulous sense of humor you have, Tom! When I was very young, my mother and older sisters read to me. It was a nightly ritual, I’m sure. And as soon as I learned to read, it was off to the races. My paternal grandma read every minute she actually took time to sit down and rest for a while. I remember seeing hardbacks of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn on her night stand and thinking how strange, yet really neat, that such an “old lady” would enjoy those! :)
    I don’t remember visiting a “real” library until I was in high school. We had a bookmobile that came to my grade school and it was one of the highlights of the week/month? for me. I’d take deep breaths, loving the smell of all those old books, and exit with an armload full! Thanks for sharing your love of books, and your amazing writing with us! P.S. I agree with Kathryn M. (above)…I don’t know what’d I do if I HAD to choose between reading and writing!! Impossible!

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    • says

      Becky, I’m definitely the old lady with the Twain on my nightstand, though I don’t wear one of those night-hats with the poofy ball on the end. That is excellent that you had a bookmobile come to your grade school—the concept of a zooming vehicle spilling with divergent voices and faraway scenes gives me a weird comfort. (But I’m weird that way.)

      They really got to know me at my local library, a brick building that looks exactly the same as it did when I was a kid. I built little walls of books on the floor and sat in them, and the librarians just smiled away. Yes.

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  6. says

    Tom, as soon as I saw your name on the byline, I had to mute the radio so I could concentrate on your playful way with words — it’s always such a joy to read your pieces. My mother was also the one who modeled the obsession; many afternoons we were curled up in the living room together, feet tucked under us in the same way, tea resting in the same spot, reading. We still pass each other books. My father was usually working, so I never saw him read, but now that he’s retired … he and my mother buy two copies of many books so they can read the same book at the same time. I’m also a proud purveyor of that crack to my own children. And I must say that it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life to have my son give me the, “I can’t turn out the light now, it’s too exciting,” line when he was reading my manuscript. Thank you for the smiles this morning, Tom.

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    • says

      Natalie, that really is a nice milestone, to have your son so enthralled by your stuff. (Though watch out, he might be setting you up for a monstrous Christmas request.) Love the notion of your mother and father reading the same book, so they can probably trade interpretations and comments. My father was more of a sports-page guy, but he did appreciate the kids reading—at least until it was time to do the dishes.

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  7. says

    Every day I make a hard choice: write – or read?

    If I get started on a book, and it’s good, there go the next 12 hours of my life, down the tubes.

    And I will stay up until whatever time necessary to finish the book.

    I’ve never been able to walk out of a new world until I’m sure there is no more of it to discover. That is the experience I want to give my eventual readers.

    I liked my reading days, still give in to the impulse as often as possible. But I like my writing days more.

    With CFS I can’t do both. So I make that hard choice to write every morning until I can’t, but I still get ambushed by books that want to be read – and fall off the wagon. I’m going on a reading orgy when I reach the next milestone.

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    • says

      Alicia, I admire your stamina! I can’t seem to go for hours and hours on the same work anymore, without eye fatigue (or perhaps brain fatigue, because I am often cleaved by that divided mind of reading/assessing). Actually, and maybe it’s because I’m a victim of the every-so-chunky Internet age, I read alternate things in spurts, mixing fiction and non.

      I have to say though, if you are going to be ambushed by something that knocks you from your writing desk, that knocker being a book makes for a softer landing.

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  8. Denise Willson says

    Great post, Tom. Love the humor.

    My kids, now 8 and 11, know their Mama as having her nose in a book. They ride, I read. They dance, I read. They…you get it. Oh, I watch what they’re up to between pages, and they’re always asking what the story is about, but they’ve learned good reading habits from the example I set. Now, when they have a break, the first thing they turn to is a book. Over t.v., and even (gasp) video games. I’m a literary Pied Piper.

    I’m also known to read books repeatedly. Like, five, six (ahem) many times. Round one is for pure enjoyment, the love of the story. Every time after is to learn something. I’ve read Time Traveler’s Wife over a dozen times. Each read was with a focus on a different element: dialogue, motivation, character development, pacing…. If you read with a specific focus, and the story is one you love, you will learn. I promise. And, other than the escape, isn’t that what reading (for a writer) is about?

    Thanks, Tom.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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    • says

      Denise, to be sure: reading a book over and over. (Huckleberry Finn and I have gone down that river oh-so-many times.) But don’t you feel the pressing weight of all the unread books? So many classics yet to read, and I haven’t even read a Jennifer Egan yet (because I am a goon). I could name so many authors of which I’ve read glowing reviews, but so little time to catch up and bask in the glow.

      But of course, when you are ensconced in the warm, buttery candle of a book, there is no time at all…

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  9. says

    Loved this playful yet meaningful treatment, Tom.

    A favorite Mom memory: My older son, age 11, torn between decorating the Christmas tree with me (a beloved tradition) and finishing Brian Jacques’ REDWALL.

    Compromise: He pulled a chair next to the tree to read while I decorated. When he closed the back cover he looked up and said, “Mom.”

    A huge tear spilled down his cheek.

    Oh, yeah.

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  10. says

    Reading has gotten me into sooo much trouble (at home, at school, even now …) but I love that the love of stories and books has been passed down to me (my mother primarily) and I am in turn passing it on to my children. Even though my children are 12 and 14, we still read aloud some evenings. I love that we can travel through time and experience being a different person … because that’s what a good book does. It disappears.

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    • says

      Vijaya, the best kind of trouble is trouble gained at the hands (pages) of reading. Well, that and trying to snoop in your neighbor’s garage to confirm that they are building a nuclear device.

      That’s a fine thing that you are still reading with your kids, and that they have undoubtedly gained from you that sweet sense of time travel and the vivid fancies of the imagination that reading supplies.

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  11. says

    Such a beautiful post, Tom. Ah, but such is the beauty of words put together and artfully aligned just right.

    I just received a phone call this morning from a friend uttering words that immediately set my thoughts sailing off to a place of envy. Her doctor has insisted she send the day, that’s 9-5, in his office for allergy testing. Her question to me, can I suggest a pile of books to take along while she’s sequestered. Oh boy, could I ever! A day with nothing to do but READ? Delicious!

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    • says

      Barbara, that’s a big-time YES on the chance to squirrel yourself away with a hoard of bookish chestnuts. I use to love faking, er, interpreting that I was sick, and being excused from school to spend much of the day with the books spread on the bed—it’s like being served a sumptuous meal, in courses. And the overeating rarely hurts.

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  12. says

    When I was little, we didn’t own a television. When my older brother went off to kindergarten, I was left home with mom and a baby brother who did nothing of interest.

    So, I pestered mom (and my brother, after school) until I could read all the words in the little books. Then, I started on the big ones.

    My parents read constantly. His whole life, if my dad wasn’t building something with his hands, he was reading. The saddest thing about my mom’s situation today is that she spends all her time watching instead of reading.

    All my kids love video games. But if the game is off, a book comes out. And sometimes, nobody even has to ask.

    Our biggest challenge with the Little One is getting her to put a book down. Meal time, bed time, school time, it’s books books books. She volunteers at our marvelous local library, and it’s heaven for her; an entire building full of books.

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  13. says

    Well, Joel you could have always tied your baby brother up with some licorice whips or covered him with leftover spaghetti as my big brother did to me occasionally. But that’s only interesting for so long; I’m glad you found reading as a worthy diversion (and I know that’s played a strong hand in your writing too).

    It’s good that Fiona digs books so much, even when the video games sing their siren song. And volunteering at the local library? Yeah, she’s got it bad now; there’s no getting out from between the book covers now.

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  14. says

    Great post! I can see me in my advanced years, not too far ahead, reading as your mother did, with a magnifying glass. I think the audio books are cool too, but as you mentioned, it just isn’t the same as being able to drink in and absorb those words with your own eyes. I honestly don’t remember learning to read. Seriously. My earliest memory is four years old, and at that time I was reading my 13 year old brother’s textbooks fluently. Granted, I didn’t understand much of the content, but I could read the words. I even helped him pronounce some of them, much to his chagrin. I have always escaped to a place where I could read. I earned the nickname, Bookworm. Even when I was encouraged to go outside and play, I’d take a book with me. I went to the library once a week, at least, and felt quite important when I became a member of the Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club. It was like Christmas when I would receive my books and go across the street to the library. It took me quite a bit longer to become a writer. I know that most biographies I read claim that they have been writing since they could hold a pencil. Well, not me. I enjoyed writing. I even like the book reports in school and essays. The other kids thought I was nuts. I just didn’t have the confidence to submit anything. Confidence (or bravado) improves with age however. Since I am now retired, 10 years early, but retired I am–now I can devote all the time I now have, to my lifelong dream of writing full-time. I didn’t write back then, but I aspired to. Now, it is my time. I am working on my debut novel and a couple of short stories now. The only question is: traditional or self-publishing?

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    • says

      The Weekly Reader Children’s Book Club? Wow, did they have a uniform too? (Or maybe matching skateboards?) That sounds pretty good, Rebecca.

      I don’t remember the actual transition from looking at squiggles on a page and pronouncing “euphonious” either, but it did seem to happen quickly, and it’s all been a rush to the end (and beginnings) of sentences since.

      As for the trad or self-pub question, better minds than mine are wrestling with that yet. But these WU pages often treat that dainty subject, so stay tuned.

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      • says

        Marilyn, yes, though I’m amazed to have a book electronically delivered to my Kindle moments after a purchase, I still gravitate to the heft, smell and pageology (don’t bother looking it up) of a physical book. So the idea of the Weekly Reader and the Bookmobile trotting out these new adventures (and opening a magic curtain in a kid’s head) is gratifying.

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  15. says

    Tom, your mom reminds me of my 90 year-old mother. The hardest thing for her was losing her eyesight and not being able to read. Thank goodness for audio books!

    Reading…yes! TV…meh. (Well, except for Downton Abbey…)

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  16. says

    Loved this post. I, too, will be like your mother, doing whatever it takes to read the words on the page.

    When I was a kid, I would get so immersed in my books that my mom would have to ground me from reading in order to get any chores done. My 20 month old daughter is well on her way to the same; she can already identify 15 words, and will happily sit “reading” her board books in her crib or on the couch for 20 minutes or more (an extensive period of time for a toddler). Nature or nurture?

    I hope one day she’ll be reading my words on the page, loving the stories that I write while she sleeps.

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    • says

      Megan, you’re feeding that infant girl words? Don’t let the authorities know. But I love the way you describe her reading—don’t you wonder what sparks are flaring in her head. I hope she gets to read your work too (and chew on it like a board book, if so inclined).

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  17. says

    I am the child who used to get in trouble for reading “too much”. Now, I work at the library, and when I see a kid with a big huge pile of books, and a parent making such noises, I say “There’s no such thing!”

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    • says

      Wow, Jen, what’s the penalty for reading too much? Do you have to watch 24-hour marathons of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo? Or maybe you are forced to read the full text of the proceedings of Congress over the past couple of months. That’ll teach those durn readers!

      Any parent should be thankful their children like to read—worlds are opened.

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  18. Laura says

    I’ve always loved books, but I could barely read on my own until 1st grade, when my teacher held an after school reading group. I don’t know who I would be today if she hadn’t helped me along, thanks Mrs. Johnson (worst name for a personal shout-out). Now, I hate to sound like an old bear (since I’m really very young), but it’s sad to see how many people don’t have a passion for reading, today’s world just overloads the senses so much that a lot of people have trouble being enthralled by “just” words on a page. On a separate note, I think that even if you are completely tangled in a book and have long abandoned any attempt at analysis, as a writer you still come away influenced by what you’ve read, your sub-conscious won’t let you come away unscathed by those fantastic words. I’m a big fan of all classic literature, and become giddy when I can read a paragraph and say, “Wow, that might just be faintly reminiscent of Chekhov!”

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  19. says

    Laura, sounds like Mrs. Johnson did a dandy job, if you are regularly sniffing out some Chekhov in your reading. I agree that there is subliminal perspective delivered through reading immersion, even if there’s no formal analysis of what the writer was about. And it’s fun to read modern works, as you suggest, and consider some shadings of some old master in their shine.

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  20. says

    Tom, I loved this! Very charming, made me feel all warm and cuddly, reminding me of when I was younger on my great-grandpa’s farm. I remember my great-grandma reading with a magnifying glass too! She was a big influence on me. On the farm, there was nothing to do, but play hide and seek with the angry bull in the cow pasture and spend the summer days reading and learning arithmetic from grandma, lol :) I loved this line: “Reading: the designer drug with no expiration date. So suck the sweet plum of the pages, and savor the sugar of words.” So witty and clever, you crack me up lol!

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  21. says

    Thanks Toni. The important question is, did your grandpa teach you to make moonshine on the farm? Very handy in recession times. I’m hit and miss with the clever, but glad you thought this was a hit.

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