I had been standing in lucky check-out line #7 at the grocery store for about ten minutes. (Yes, I always choose wrong.)
They were having technical issues with the register, so three strapping, young male clerks battled in heated discussion over the possible fix. When talk turned from technology to techno music (ugh), a grandmotherly manager — with a hair switch that could keep dozens warm at night — strolled over to check things out.
She had a book under her arm, so always curious, I craned to see the title. No luck. I thought of a comment I recently heard; “If I can’t see what they’re reading, how am I supposed to properly judge them?” I smirked at the memory, wondering what this higher-up was peeking at in the back room while her worker bees buzzed about.
“Here. Hold this,” she said, handing the book to the nearest member of the hive.
Clerk #1: (Looking at book) “Aw, come on!”
Manager-Lady: “Just help me out. The book won’t bite.”
Clerk #2: “Eh — he doesn’t know how to read anyway.”
Clerk #1: “Yeah, right. But I hate it. I never read.”
My stomach dropped. Were “never” and “read” just used in the same sentence?
ML (Manager-Lady): “Come on. What’s the last book you read?”
Clerk #1: “Dunno. For school.”
Clerk #3: “Magazines? Nothin’?”
Clerk #1: “I’d rather clean toilets than read!”
I died a little bit inside. (Because, clearly, this kid had never scrubbed a high-traffic toilet.)
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Not everyone likes to read, and there’s constant discussion in the Children’s/YA lit world about the high percentage of boys who stop reading for pleasure beginning around the middle grades. Not all boys, of course, but enough that it’s a concern.
Hearing Clerk #1 declare war on reading was sobering. It made me think of my two young boys who still get excited every time we bring new books home from the library — boys who can be found reading in sunbeams on lazy afternoons. The thought of that possibly changing someday made me sad.
ML seemed just as disturbed as I did. “What about Harry Potter?” she asked.
Clerk #1: (Offended) “No way!”
“The movies are pretty good,” Clerk #2 offered.
“The books are better!” blurted another shopper from behind.
Well, well — I picked the right line after all.
ML: “The Book Thief?”
Clerk #1: “Huh?” No dice.
ML named book after book, and author after author. She gave up all pretense of fixing the register — the reading practices of her employees were far too important.
I was really starting to like this woman.
Clerk #1 continued to answer in the negative. ML’s mention of Stephen King didn’t even get a head-nod of recognition.
I couldn’t take it anymore. The title of one of the books my luke-warm-reading husband favored popped into my head. “How about, The Count of Monte Cristo?!”
Um, okay. Maybe not the best example.
“Nothing. No reading,” said Clerk #1 breaking the calm. He reached forward, making the universal sign for “scrub-a-dub-dub.” That, or he had broken into interpretive dance. “Yup, I’ll take the brush instead.”
Just then, Clerk #3 started waving to get our attention. “Okay, I gotcha this time!” (Pause) “Dude. Clean toilets, or… read Playboy?”
Clerk #2: (Laughing) “Yeah, their articles are awesome!”
A male customer chortled in (assumed) agreement. ML and I rolled our eyes.
Clerk #1 thought. And thought.
ML glanced meaningfully at the customers. “Boys,” she whispered. Her words demanded professionalism, but her eager expression showed that she was waiting for the answer.
The crowd leaned forward. What would it be? Would he choose cleaning toilets over reading…Playboy?
Finally, with a look that was appropriately abashed, Clerk #1 bit his lip and mumbled, “Well, um, I’m only seventeen. Can’t buy it, yet.”
Maybe there was hope for him turning into a reader after all.
This re-telling was largely for fun, but getting boys to read (and helping them to become life-long readers) is an important crusade. I’m thankful to know many writers who create worlds to draw them in.
*Find me on Twitter @amandahoving