Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

A Reader

Yes, I read.
Making small talk at my husband's office Christmas party earlier this month, I asked the boss' wife what she was reading.  The question was not out of the blue, she had mentioned something about reading during the holiday break and my response was a natural follow-up. The question, however, seemed to catch her by surprise.  Her face turned up towards mine with hopeful anticipation, "Are you a reader?" she asked.  My ambivalent response left her looking quite crestfallen.

Clearly, this woman is a reader. She didn't want to simply recite the titles on her bookshelf and move onto the next topic of conversation.  She was hoping to talk to me about books.  If I was a reader, perhaps I would have read the book she was reading, or another book by the same author, or in the same genre.  If I was a reader, we could talk about how the book was going and what we saw in the characters, what we hoped for them.  We could go to that place on the other side of the pages and leave the party's cheese cubes and awkward banter behind us.

I do read.  I read a lot for work, skim the New York Times every day, and read the articles my friends post on Facebook. All of this, however, does not qualify me as a reader.  Not like my mother who regularly sits with her tea and a book in the chair next to the window.  Not like my sister and her husband who reserve books on-line at their library, creating a steady stream of pages through their home. Not like those 7th grade girls who I see walking into school with a book tucked under their arm, just waiting for a free moment. Not like that.

But, hey, it's the New Year, so we get to be who we want to be.  This year, I am going to be a reader.  Not so I can talk to the boss' wife or join a book group, but because reading is wonderful.  I was a reader once, and I remember it very well.  Crouched with Nancy Drew inside the hidden staircase, listening for the creaking door.  Talking with Jane Jacobs about why our cities succeed and fail.  Deep in a pile of trash on the outskirts of Mumbai, watching the neighbors fight. I've been to the other side.

My first book of the resolution was a gift from my mother last Christmas, as in 2012.  Written by a team of anthropologists, the book begins with the story of instant noodles to tell a larger tale of the industrial food complex and the challenge of feeding the world.  A lot to chew on.  Overall, the book made me feel grateful that there are some extremely smart and dedicated people thinking about these issues because they are enormous and scary and I am busy with other things. Highlights included their descriptions of noodle museums in Japan, how MREs are developed for our troops, and how instant Ramen noodles were introducted into the culture of Papua New Guinea. I also find it interesting that the authors are married and wonder about how that collaboration works. I spent some time between chapters thinking about Margaret Mead, just because I think she is fascinating, which made me think of my anthropology courses at Columbia and other stuff related to those college years. And so it spins and spins off into the great beyond.