ESSAY- Book time: <i>Not Reading Lolita</i> in Charlottesville
Young and old, black and white, 29 adults stare aimlessly in Charlottesville's juvenile court waiting room. Two infants sleep in parent's laps, and two toddlers suck their thumbs.
I put down my book– Reading Lolita in Tehran– and walk across to the courtroom. In front, the harried judge deals with at least one lawyer, a social worker or two, two distraught parents, and a male teen determined to illustrate perfect contempt.
Behind them, the court contains at least two dozen adults and a handful of teens staring either into space or into that same pool of derision. No one here has a book– nor newspaper, nor magazine– though all of us came aware that we might wait for hours.
Returning to the waiting room, I again pick up my book, the stunning story of eight women who read and discuss Western novels in the Islamic Republic of Iran over threats of death, dismemberment, and prison so that (at least in their minds) they might see themselves as free.
"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife," I read one of the women sardonically paraphrase the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Call this the paradox of the Book.
Where we can read, where we should read, even in a place where reading might address the exact problem being battled and where there is nothing else to do but read, we don't. But "over there," where the simple pleasure of understanding life through literature is denied, people– and at least one of these women is jailed, raped and beaten– are willing to suffer for the right to open Austen, Kafka, Nabokov, Tyler, and Twain.
"To steal the words from Humbert, the poet/criminal of Lolita," writes author Azar Nafishi, "I need you the reader, to image us, for we won't really exist if you don't. Against the tyranny of time and politics, imagine us in the way we sometimes didn't dare to imagine ourselves: in our most private and secret moments, in the most extraordinarily ordinary instances of life, listening to music, falling in love, walking down the shady streets or reading Lolita in Tehran.
"And then imagine us again with all this confiscated, driven underground, taken away from us."
Putting Reading Lolita down, I again scan the court's waiting room. Two ladies to my left are talking, but the rest appear to have no thoughts, no ideas, no desires, no anything. They are just there. One young black couple, the woman holding a sleeping infant, smile at each other, but every other adult simply stares.
"Are you a social worker?" I ask a tall blonde woman holding file folders in the lap of her cheap business suit. Returning from her personal ozone layer, she nods. "Why don't they provide books here?" I ask. "Juvenile fiction, picture books, anything?"
"That's an idea," she says, her expression showing traces of interest. "It might help."
"Can you handle the permission issue?" I continue. "I think I could get books donated."
With her expression changing to "It's not my job," she stands and heads purposely out the door.
It's not my job either, but since America's young average only seven minutes a day reading, it seems that, as Twain says, "providence" has put Reading Lolita and a witness subpoena in my hands at the same exact moment.
Certainly, a huge percentage of people behind bars begin their "careers" in juvenile court, and certainly a huge percentage drop out of school before claiming their spaces in the criminal justice system?
Certainly, there's some connection between reading, and thinking, and a system which spends $22,650 a year to keep individuals in prison?
I think of Charlottesville's Kay Allison and her wonderful work in a group called "Books Behind Bars." Some 20 prisoners in Virginia's 36 institutions daily write her in horrifying block letters desperately seeking books. Daily. Using their literal "down time," they seek to recover reading and thinking and connecting their lives to the world outside– in much the same way the women do in Reading Lolita.
Maybe just one book left in a juvenile court waiting room picked up by one bored kid might pull him or her back from disaster?
Knowing it's not much, it seems worth the chance. After all, as the National Endowment of the Arts put it in November: "The cold statistics confirm something that most readers know but have mostly been reluctant to declare as fact: books change lives for the better."
I don't quite complete Reading Lolita before the state attorney tells me that my testimony won't be needed. But when I do, after I've asked my book club to donate used books, the concluding lines haunt me:
"Hardly anything has changed in the nonstop sameness of our everyday life. But somewhere else I have changed. Each morning with the rising of the routine sun as I wake up and put on my veil before the mirror to go out and become a part of what is called reality, I also know another "I" that has become naked on the pages of a book."
Randy Salzman is a former communications professor and now a Charlottesville-based freelance writer.