The way some parents carry on, Amy Carter's reading of thrillers at White House State Dinners might be the worst thing that's happened to The American Family since television.
Reading at the table can cause divorce. It also can cause a particularly nasty type of fight, the kind that builds in silence: There at the breakfast table sits the Invisible Man represented only by a newspaper that rustless sharply from time to time. Why is the woman facing him turning maroon? It's not that she has anything special to say to him. It's not that she wants a piece of the paper. It's something far more basic, something to do with the nature of marriage itself.
Furthermore, reading at the table has caused more children to be banished from dinners than sassing, squabbling and feeding the dog carrots combined. Why is this? What make a normally reasonable child keep returning to his book, sneaking glances at it on his lap, despite one scolding after another? Why does the husband, who has just slammed down his magazine in a rage after being goaded by his wife for five minutes, even then let his eyes stray to the flung page?
The answer is that reading at the table is not like other vices. It is something special. It is one of life's supreme pleasures. Anyone who has never spent a solitary lunchtime hunched over a stew (expert lunch readers avoid meats that have to be cut), with one hand deftly holding open and turning the pages of a book, cannot know the full dimensions of either eating or reading. Don't even try to compare this subtle experience with eating popcorn at the movies.
We are dealing here with a basic human problem. There are two kinds of people: those read at the table and those who won't tolerate it. For it goes without saying tht one doesn't merely abstain, oneself. That's not enough; one must keep everybody else from doing it.
A veteran husband of our acquaintance says that one of the things he has to accept about his wife is her attitude to dinner reading. Otherwise unfailingly tolerant, open to reason, willing to discuss, on this one point she has never budged. There is ABSOLUTELY NO READING at her table. At any time. By anybody. You even squint at the small print on the back of you spoon, she frowns.
On the other hand, we know a case where two dinner readers married each other. Talk about quiet.
This is no breakfast, you realize. Lots of families read at breakfast: Why do you think newspapers started coming in sections? No, this couple reads through all meals, and the only signs of tension come when one of them laughs inexplicably.
It is not certain what would happen to this couple if there were children. Would they quit for the sake of the kids? Or encourage them to join the conspiracy? (For it is conspiracy, one civilization.) And what if they wanted to read dirty comics? Or talk? There's no end to the problems.
The fact is, reading at the table makes a statement, and the statement goes something like this: Whatever you're planning to say, I don't want to hear it.I don't want to talk, and especially I don't want to listen. Family life is fine - otherwise I would be eating in the kitchen - but just shut up, will ya?
Now, if the person making this silent statement were simply to sit there in gloomy grandeur, that would be one thing. But it is the fact that the persons is READING that gets 'em. Everyone feels like a hermit now and then probably should be indulged. But reading! That't like bringing your own bottle of A-1 Sauce into Sans Souci.
Which brings us back to Amy. If she wants to read, why does she have to eat with all those diplomats anyway?
One night when I was a shy college student we visited some friends of friends and I wound up in tougue-tied conversation in the study with the master of the house, a gentle charmer who had obviously been looking forward to a lovely quiet evening with a book but was too kind to be rude to this bashful intruder.
So what did he do? He read aloud to me from the book.
"may I read you something?" he asked diffidently. I nooded, gulping in relief. It was Edmund Pearson's elegant "Studies in Murder."
He read for almost an hour, both of us totally immersed, now and then chucking over Pearson's wit or shaking our heads at some horror. I never forgot that evening.
And besides, he managed to finish his book.
Mabye Amy could read aloud to her parents' dinner guests. I bet Sen. Muskie would have loved to hear about "Charley and the Glass Elevator."