National Geographic Guilt

By: Shelly Reuben

I am sitting at my dining room table. To my right are five issues of the National Geographic. To my left is a vividly colored shopping bag decorated with covers from that same magazine.

I also have a “personalized membership certificate” so impressive that when I slip it out of its envelope, I expect to hear Pomp and Circumstance being played in the background by a Philharmonic orchestra.

Along with the above came a brand new map titled “THE WORLD,” in which green, brown, and blue countries populate continents surrounded by vast blue seas.

It is quite a package, and at twelve dollars, definitely a bargain, since it also includes a one-year subscription to the publication.

But here’s the rub.

No matter how much I try to delude myself into believing that I will partake of all these benefits, I know (been there; done that) that I will never use the shopping bag; I will never frame the certificate; and I will never read a single boring, boring, boring article in their beautiful, beautiful, beautiful magazine.

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Okay, now I’ve done it. I’ve shown you that my brain is a cultural morass, inhabited by very few Tibetan villages, not a single undersea volcano, no Peruvian pyramids, and nary a vestige of frolicking insects or galloping galaxies.


Truly, I’d thought that by subscribing to National Geographic this time, I would fill my little gray cells with cultural esoterica. But I’ve made that mistake before. With…oh, so many things. Like when I bought all those wonderful cookbooks, lined them up attractively on the shelf above my stove, and expected THEM to read the recipes and prepare my meals.

The spice rack, too. I positioned it carefully against the backsplash on my kitchen counter and filled it with savory seasonings: Marjoram; Thyme; Basil; Paprika (doesn’t that sound like the clatter of castanets?); Turmeric (clearly, a nation we should be invading); Rosemary; and Cardamom. Could anything be more intriguing, more enticing, or more captivating than a kitchen filled with such delights?

No. I mean, Yes. I mean, I have no idea, because here again, I fail. What do I do with this culinary embarrassment of riches? Nothing. Occasionally, I dust off a spice bottle, but as far as cooking goes, I continue to use the same unimaginative seasonings: Garlic powder, onion powder and Cinnamon.

Clearly, as with my cookbooks, I expect the spices to do their work for me.

And since I’m throwing my intellect under the bus, I may as well admit to the worst indignity of all. The Great Books of the Western World. I have the complete 54 volume set. I positioned them on special shelves that fit inside a beautiful mantelpiece that occupies pride of place in my living room. They are opposite an over-stuffed armchair, which I have designated as my “learning center” for when I actually sit down to read them.

Listen to the authors. Hear me, oh my brethren, as I articulate their names: Homer. Plato. Aristotle. Virgil. Aristophanes. Plutarch. Aquinas. Dante. Machiavelli. Chaucer. Locke. Milton. Spinoza. Galileo. Goethe. Darwin. Freud. And more, more, more.

In my imagination, the wisdom, knowledge, irony, philosophy, epistemology, and poetry of these writers have illuminated every crack and crevice of my mind. In fact, however, all of the books remain crammed on my shelves, their spines un-cracked; their pages unread.

Humiliating. Yes. But not overwhelming. As I have promise myself that someday, when I am recovering from a sprained ankle after having skydived out of a Phantom Jet…or someday after having won an International Tango Competition, I will read them all. Every one. Even Euclid and (good grief!) Marx. And that I will retain every word.

I say that, but I know…oh, yes. I know…that if ever I do land up indisposed in my comfortable green armchair, I will be reading Agatha Christie mysteries or the complete works of O. Henry or anything by Charles Dickens or, if I’m really hurting, all of the Harry Potter books. Yet again.

As to the National Geographic? Well, I’ve received six issues of my subscription, and I have six left to go.

Let’s see. Title: “The Joy of Food.” First line: “The sharing of food has always been part of the human story.” Well, doesn’t make my blood boil with anticipation. Let’s try another. Title: “The Birth of Art.” Opening line: “The first anatomically modern people evolved in Africa some 200,000 years ago, but…” Hmmm. That won’t do either. How about “Mighty Mites”? First line: “Several years ago I made a bet about face mites, animals that live in hair follicles.” Oh, no!

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Alas, I fear that my entire National Geographic collection will remain stacked, the pictures perused but the text unexamined, on my dining room shelf. And somewhere in the dark recesses of my uncultivated brain, perhaps – indeed, for certain – I am hoping that all of those sorely neglected magazines will throw back their shoulders, proudly raise their heads and…read themselves?

Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2015


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