On Truth

by anna on January 1, 2009

Charlotte Sometimes was not much of a reader. This truth she disguised by studiously collecting books for the entirety of her life, and had she been a contemporary of Jay Gatsby, perhaps her books, also, would have been shelved uncut. But these days they cut the pages for you, and besides, Charlotte Sometimes would never overlooked such a crucial detail in the maintenance of her fraudulent veneer. For Charlotte Sometimes believed that God was in the details. And had she also believed in God, this might have been quite something. So for now, her rooms were filled–as they had always been, with bookcases–the bookcases in turn filled with books, the books filled with pages, and pages filled with words that she would never read.

Once, during her illiterate travels through academia, Charlotte Sometimes had actually seen an uncut book. She had found it in the refrigerated vault beneath the William A. Clark Memorial Library in South Central Los Angeles. She may have been the first person ever to have noticed it. It was a book from the 18th century, the only copy of Alexander Pope’s A Key to the Lock (a companion piece that nobody ever reads) housed in that library. It might have been a first edition, she did not know, and she was told to find the material elsewhere, because the book was worth more as an artifact with uncut pages. They told her, in essence, that the book could not, should not be read. And this was fine with Charlotte Sometimes. Really. Because not only did it function better that way as a metaphor, it allowed her not-reading to continue through the course of her advanced degrees.

The not-reading was an elaborate ruse that she had begun as a child, even before she knew what or why she was doing it. After pretend phonics lessons, and faking her way through beginning reading comprehension exercises, the young non-reading Charlotte Sometimes set about lining her childish bookcases with slim paperbacks, flushing their spines so that the apples at the top of each Scholastic title formed an unbreakable circuit of knowledge. This bookcase would be the first in a series of ploys that might one day prove that she was, despite all contrary appearances, good enough.

As she aged, the obsessive practice continued, developing along the way its own identity and its own unique caché. She pretended to read in order to arrange the books alphabetically on her shelves by author. Or later, with the addition of more bookshelves–acquired at Home Depot, stuffed into a tiny Honda Civic, dragged up two flights of stairs, and put together with a single girl’s trusty, all-purpose ratcheting screwdriver–by genre and then by author. Sometimes the bookcases would sigh with the weight of the books, their cheap, particle-board construction skeptical of their own suitability to the task. But for this Charlotte Sometimes would shush them. She would tell them–the bookcases–to tough it out, to find the strength somewhere. Because they were all she had. She had nothing but them, because of them, and for them. Together they were going to have to figure it out.

And on the rare occasions where she had someone in to see the bookcases, well, there they were, in all their low-rent glory. And it was then that they would vindicate her, awkwardly, in spite of (because of?) their near failure to hold all her books. When somebody would say, “You read all those books? Really?” and Charlotte would think, “It’s not that many books, actually,” but what she would say was, “Yes.” Modestly. Dishonestly. Her brain incapable of holding all the information housed in these books she displayed but never read.

She went about the acquisition of degrees in a similar fashion, figuring out which disciplines might possibly require the most reading of books, and signing herself up for those. She chose the longest possible track–where one could go for two and call it a day, she got three, or four by unofficial degree enumeration calculations, and lined up the diplomas right next to her books, ostensibly to prove something to herself. They were undeniable truths, these diplomas–it could not be disputed that she did the work to get them, because to do so would be to doubt the veracity of the universities themselves, and though this could be done, it was not probable that one would suspect such venerable institutions of complicity in a lie. Even those professional, undetectable lies that Charlotte Sometimes crafted for herself.

It was apparent that she had tricked them. Because she was not–had never been–much of a reader. Maybe she was just a very accomplished liar, but she claimed that the artifice had never been constructed for herself. It had been to prove something to someone, she realized, whether she had known it or not. And finally one day somebody called her on it. He said, “You’ve never been much of a reader, Charlotte Sometimes.” And she knew that person could see truth. Clearly. Without doubt. And though she pointed to all the books, all the beautiful books and diplomas, she knew the gig was up. She was not a reader, and she never had been. Because what he said was his truth, beyond reproach, unchanging and unforgiving. It was no different today than it had been when she was in diapers. It was all he had. And he was just going to have to figure it out.

And so one day, she found herself packing up the books into old boxes and dropping them off, a few boxes at a time, outside of a Goodwill drop off station, where maybe the books could find someone to read them. Maybe they would be sold to someone who actually knew how to use them, or maybe they would rot away on a shelf somewhere, but they could not taunt her anymore, and neither could the diplomas because they too were packed away, preserved (it’s true) in frames, but hidden from sight and prying eyes, judging tones, accusations of never-reading. And after she had dropped off the last load of books, she set out, alone, bookless, nothing to prove, to decipher a new truth.

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