Contraband reading ... and other happy misdeeds

I was going to a funeral service last Saturday when I started to think about my life as a secret reader. A friend, knowing I had to attend a Greek Orthodox mass, casually mentioned that they often went on for hours.

I responded that I was used to tedious religious services because, as a child, I’d had to go to synagogue with my father and sit through interminable mornings of prayer. My dad wore a Jewish prayer shawl, which for the uninitiated, ends in long silk threads. While he prayed, I braided the threads around my fingers, and when my father stood up, my fingers were so entwined in the tassels that my hand would fly upward, like flag being jerked up a pole.

It wasn’t so much that I hated going to temple as that it just plain bored me to death.

Another remedy for boredom would be to sneak whichever novel I happened to be reading into services, tuck it between the pages of my prayer book, and while others attended to the business of communicating with God, I would be reading The Secret Garden, Heidi, or Jayne Eyre.

I was just as inattentive to my surroundings when I walked to school. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I managed to negotiate sidewalks, streets, cars, and curbs on my way to Junior High, a mile-and-a-half away, without tripping, falling, or getting run over by a station wagon (my generation’s mini-van), and without ever once looking up from my book.



We idiots who love to read must have a special Guardian Angel to protect us when we forget to look both ways while crossing the street.

My angel certainly protected me from the stern eye of instructors at secretarial school, where my parents sent me after I threatened to flunk out of college if they didn’t let me quit.

“I want to go to New York to become a writer,” I pouted.

“Learn to type,” they wisely responded. “Then no matter where you go, you’ll always be able to get a job.”

So, reminiscent of my sleight of hand with prayer books, I brought Atlas Shrugged, which I happened to be reading at the time, to Moser Secretarial School, and by translating a few chapters into shorthand, managed to learn enough to fake, if not actually take, dictation.

My culpability as a reader eventually morphed into the same as a writer, and I have many warm memories of writing short stories at Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Company. Being the fastest typist in the world, I often finished my secretarial duties long before my bosses could come up with more letters for me to type, which left my imagination free to trickle words across a page.

I was still at Peat, Marwick when I received a manuscript that I had sent to a television production company over a year earlier. I remember my anguish as I opened the envelope and read, “This script was found in the desk drawer of the show’s previous producer and is being returned to you unread.” I burst into tears, and then hid out for another half-an-hour, crying my heart out in the ladies room of a management-consulting firm that never knew how kind it was being to a fledgling novelist.

Allied Graphic Arts was another company that treated me well. I never had a spare second to write, as we often worked late into the night, but I had lots of stories to send out to editors over the weekends, and I was putting in a lot of overtime. So, I came to an arrangement with my bosses that, instead of receiving overtime pay, I could make as many copies of my manuscripts on their Xerox machines as I liked.

My misbegotten life of reading and writing continued on airplanes, on buses, during jury duty, at lectures, and during classes. I completely rewrote Tabula Rasa during several months that I spent at a hospital bedside, and I did such a good job of it that, after I sent it to my agent, she sold it right away.

I wrote the first draft of my new book, The Man With The Glass Heart, when I was working for a man I met only once, on the day that he hired me. He assigned me just two duties. First, to remove quarters once a week from the washers and dryers in the cellar of the apartment building where I worked (he owned the building), and second, to order lobsters for a restaurant that he operated in Vermont.

Which left me about 33 hours a week to read, write, or count my fingers and toes.

And which also brings me to today. Where as a completely unreformed, un-regenerated, and unrepentant character, I sit here at my computer writing this column, when I am really supposed to be …

Well, you don’t have to know that, do you?

All you really need to know is that my fingers are not entangled in my father’s prayer shawl; a priest is not reciting a funeral mass; and I am not about to be run over by an eighteen-wheeler as I obliviously walk into the street while reading a book.

Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.

Copyright © 2013, Shelly Reuben

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