Alas. I trudged in last week, miserable, for my routine cleaning.
The hygienist this time, a young Mexican-American woman, was carefully pleasant as they always are, and again, as they all do—why, why do they do this?—began chatting away at me. Of course my only available responses were a series of sounds, dramatically inflected: ‘aaah-haaggh,’ ‘aggghh,’ and ‘ooghh.’
Somehow she’d caught wind of the fact that I wrote, and began to tell me, as she worked, that she’d just discovered reading.
I’d heard correctly. This woman may have been in her late twenties. Her life until only recently had mainly consisted of the scramble to get through school, obtain her professional credentials, and land a decent job. (This is my language describing her process, not hers, which was shyer and more polite.) There hadn’t been time—nor any cultural reinforcement—for reading.
By reading I mean reading just to read: from wide-ranging curiosity, for no larger purpose than to enter and dwell in the world of the book.
It started for her when, one day, a friend recommended a silly, popular potboiler. My hygienist found, almost instantly, that she wanted more, and better. Potboilers led to more serious fare. Sometimes she took herself to movies after she’d read the novels on which they were based, to compare them. No one was guiding or instructing her.
I can honestly tell you that her joy, in having discovered this amazing, vast world, expressed itself like Helen Keller’s, at the moment when she’d at last divined the meaning of “water” spelled into her hand by Anne Sullivan.
My own misery evaporated. I scribbled (once freed) a list of books for her to investigate, classics that would transcend fashion and blow her mind. Out of Africa. The Great Gatsby. And because she’d read a Norwegian book that intrigued her, Out Stealing Horses. There were dozens more.
I walked out of that office with not only clean teeth but an excited heart, fired up by her wonder. Simply by pointing out for her certain beloved stepping stones into it, I found the same brilliant, multicolored Oz opening up all over again for me.
Joan Frank is the author of five books of fiction, and a recent essay collection called Because You Have To: A Writing Life, just nominated for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Nonfiction. Joan holds an MFA in creative fiction from Warren Wilson College, is a MacDowell Colony Fellow, Pushcart Prize nominee, winner of the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award in Short Fiction, Richard Sullivan Prize, Dana Award, and is the recipient of grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, and Sonoma Arts Council. A two-time nominee for the Northern California Book Award in Fiction and San Francisco Library Literary Laureate, Joan has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, and continues to teach and edit in private consultation. Joan also regularly reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review. She lives in Northern California.