For many of us, reading was the first relationship we ever took to bed, often way before we took another human. So what happens when reading and our intimate relationships come together in the bedroom?
Featuring some special guests: insane parrots.
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Close the door and dim the lights. Let’s talk. I’m Violeta Balhas and this is Season 1, Episode 4 of Pillow Talking – Stories about the stories we tell each other when there’s no one listening. In this episode, Reading in bed.
I was an insane reader as a kid. Started early, and went hard. But it wasn’t because I was used to being read to, or anything; it was actually probably the opposite. I only remember asking my mother to read me a book once, probably because I’d got the idea from television that some mothers did this, and even then she fobbed me off. But she adored books and reading, applauded it and supported it in us, and there was never a shortage of reading material in the house. No books, even the grownup ones, were ever out of bounds, just like the vinyl LPs were never out of bounds, even to tiny clumsy hands that just had to put The Beatles on.
My mother never encouraged me to read in bed. But she never discouraged me, either. And she told me stories that suggested her blessing. Her own mother didn’t understand her passion for reading, mamá said. She had to wait until bedtime to read in secret, she said. There was no light for her to read by other than the moon, she said.
“Las gotas de luz de la luna caian por las hojas del parral, y yo las agarraba en las paginas.”
“The drops of moonlight fell through the leaves of the grapevine, and I would catch them on the pages.”
That’s a blessing, yes? So I read in bed.
I made a new friend when I was 12, and she was an even more insane reader than I: harder, faster. A library user with cards for both school and local libraries – absolutely hardcore. On sleepovers at her place she taught me that sleepiness was something to power through. The story, if you held on, would pull you through it, and you didn’t let go until the story let you go in its final pages. One, two, three in the morning? It was worth it. Sleep was so much sweeter afterwards.
What I’m describing here is love, passion, devotion, obsession – the kind of feelings we associate with our romantic relationships. And for people who love to read, reading is a relationship, and an intimate one; no one can ever enter the world we create in our minds and hearts when we read a book – they can only interrupt or intrude. And for many of us who love to read, it is the first relationship we took to bed, often predating another human by many years. Is it any wonder then that reading and our intimate relationships often come together in the bedroom? And what happens when they do is as varied as any story you can find within the covers of a book. Melodrama, tragedy, comedy, farce – they’re all there.
The stories in this episode don’t quite cover all the types of drama but they’re all about reading and relationships in the bedroom; and the talk that the reading generated, or brought to a complete halt. These conversations all happened in the intimacy of the bedroom.
Ssh. Let’s listen.
My brother was always giving me a hard time growing up. It was always, “Ooh, it’s hard being the only intellectual in the village” and his favourite, “The wank is strong with this one”.
I was artsy and it was true I didn’t really fit into our village. I was certain I’d been born in the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong family and I wasn’t shy about expressing it. As far as I was concerned, as soon as I turned 18 I was out of there, and in the meantime, I was a big fish in a small pond.
Once at uni, it took me over a year to get a girl to go out with me, let alone get one to stay overnight. By the time I got a girlfriend I was more than ready to live out my childhood fantasy of what university life would be like which included:
I had the beautiful girlfriend. Now what? My flatshare wasn’t exactly flash but it wasn’t crumbling. The long philosophical discussions were more like games of COD. And when I moved out my mum and my aunties had given me all their excess house stuff so I was drinking wine out of actual glasses – almost a matching set.
But the first time my girlfriend stayed over was like a dream. When I woke up I opened the curtain and she looked exquisite in the morning light. This was it.
One of my habits was transcribing favourite poems into a Moleskin notebook I carried everywhere, and every now and then I would write one of my own. I would pull this notebook out in cafes to look interesting and enigmatic, but this! This was its ultimate purpose.
I got the notebook out. Told her I would read her a poem by my favourite poet: Dylan Thomas – who else? She loved it. I read her another. And then I read her one of my own. Not only did she love it, she asked me who it was by, and if it was by Dylan Thomas too.
Whatever orgasm I’d had the night before paled into insignificance at what I felt when she said that.
I only remembered this memory recently. What struck me on remembering was my conflicting feelings at the time. Half of me orgasmically elated at the idea that my writing might be confused with Dylan Thomas’s, half of me utterly contemptuous of a girl who couldn’t tell the difference. I really was a wanker.
This is the story of how I broke up with boyfriend over a conversation we had in the bedroom about romance novels, and it’s probably not what you think.
I started reading romances ironically, when Bobby and I were vacationing through Georgia on summer break, and staying at my Grammy’s place in Atlanta for a few days. As usual, she had a romance novel going. She went through those things at a rate of 3 or 4 a week. I happened to mention that I needed to stop by the bookstore to get some light reading material for the roadtrip, and she waved at her bursting bookshelves and told me to help myself. I refused as graciously as I could, and told her that I’d TRIED to like romance novels and had bought a couple from the thrift store and hadn’t liked them. She said, “Honey, what does it tell you about those books that people don’t want to keep them?”. So mostly to be nice I took one to bed that night, chuckling to myself at the clichés, lusty descriptions of the male love interest, and all that internal dialogue! Before I knew it, I’d finished the book and it was 2am. As much as I wanted to say I hated it, I couldn’t argue with that 2am finish.
The next day I grabbed an armful of Grammy’s novels before we continued on our trip. As I read, I started thinking that the romance novel would be the perfect subject of my dissertation. When I got home and started working on it, however, I encountered a problem. My topic was flawed, because the assumptions I’d made were simply untrue. Specifically, the assumptions I’d made about the main readership: women. They are mostly in happy relationships; most are college educated; and most earn well above the median US salary. And if some of them were unhappy in their relationships, it’s only because the readership is so vast: about one-fifth of all adult fiction sales.
And what emerged was a seriously sexist narrative: not in the novels, but around romances themselves. There is little serious university research devoted to this genre, despite it literally being a billion-dollar industry. No other fiction genre is subjected to the ridicule that romance is. They’re accused of being realistic, or feeding secret fantasies. But is a happily-ever-after more unrealistic or fanciful than a science fiction world where humans can travel at light speed and live on distant planets? Do people who read detective novels secretly fantasize of coming across a murder and solving it? It’s clear that this genre, mostly by women and for women is seen as it is because of the way women themselves are seen. To the point that when a male writer puts out a romance, it’s treated completely differently by both publishers and society. A woman romance writer, for example, will have to put out several books a year to make a living (in fact many of them hold down full-time jobs); but something like The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks or The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller will attract film adaptations and millions of dollars. The ones written by men are no better than any of the romance fiction I read written by women, and in the case of some of the million-dollar stories, much worse.
I didn’t end up writing my dissertation on romance novels (I won’t go into the boring reasons why) but I did do something else: I started reading romance novels for real. I mean as a reader, once I admitted to myself that I was enjoying them. I called Grammy up for recommendations; she was overjoyed, and it helped us feel close again after my move to Washington.
One time Bobby was staying over and I had a romance on my bedside table.
“Why are you still reading that crap?” Bobby asked.
I was, after my research, on high alert for the sexist narrative making an appearance, and I felt my hackles rising. I asked him if he’d read it, and how did he know it was crap. He said “Oh, you know…” And I said no, I didn’t, and how about explaining it to me. He couldn’t. Then he tried to be joky, as if I was making a big deal of it, but I wasn’t laughing. Then he literally said this:
“I get it. I know it’s what all you girls aspire to…”
He trailed off when he saw my face and I asked him to explain to me what ‘all we girls’ aspire to.
He tried, but every word he said just made it worse. The cover over the sexist pit he was standing in was off, and every word he said to justify himself was a shovel that just put him deeper and deeper inside.
So that was the end of Bobby. But the romance novels remain. They’re not the only reading I do, but I love them. A few months after this I was talking to Grammy and she said, “Don’t tell your mama this, but…” and she introduced me to her secret, favourite imprint, which is pretty steamy, even for me. So that was a bunch of other assumptions about Grammy out the window too! And a whole other story.
When our three children reached their teens, I decided to go back to university. I wasn’t ready to commit to a full degree, so I decided to do a few courses first. It was cheap, there was no pressure, and I could explore whatever subjects I fancied at any particular time. My husband, who is an old-fashioned but very supportive man, thought that if it made me happy, it was a good thing.
One of the first courses I did was a Women’s Studies taster, and it did not make me happy. Anyone who has done gender studies will tell you that the subject matter can make you feel sad and angry at the state of women in the world. I was happy to be studying, but absolutely furious from the very beginning to the very end.
I was already angry when I picked up a copy of one of the recommended texts, The Female Eunuch, and proceeded to get even angrier when I read the name of the author: Germaine Greer. All my life my mother had told me, and anyone who would listen, that the name she gave me was her second choice. Her first choice for a daughter’s name, which she’d decided on when she was little, was Charmaine. But then I was born at the time when “that horrible woman, Charmaine Greer, wrote that book about women eunuchs”, and it spoiled the name for her. She said this with such resentment, probably at “Charmaine Greer” but of course hearing this since I was little I always assumed most of the resentment was aimed at me for having been born at the wrong time!
So it didn’t start well. The author’s first name was Germaine and I could have been Charmaine all along and not had to deal with my mother’s litany and resentment. I should probably not have taken this book to bed, but I did. It was not easy reading and I was well outside of my comfort zone, but the thing that I was seeing for the first time is that Germaine Greer can make the most outrageous statements but still be absolutely compelling. She’s always whipped people up into a frenzy!
And she’d whipped me up into a frenzy reading her book in bed. A feminist frenzy! I was fuming. I’d got to a part where she talks about men associating sex with shame and disgust because of their experience of masturbation in their youth, and then transferring this to the women they have sex with:
“The man regards her as a receptacle into which he has emptied his sperm, a kind of human spittoon, and turns from her in disgust.”
It was an ugly statement that in my state of fury at men in general seemed plausible. I closed the book, turned to my husband and asked him, point blank, if I was a human spittoon to him. He was totally confused, of course, and I had to explain what I’d just been reading. He thought for some moments, then looked at me. He is a man of few words, my husband, but always to the point. Slowly, without any particular emotion, he said,
“Have you finally lost your bloody mind.”
I was ready for a fight! I grabbed that “finally” like a lance, ready to run him through with it, but he laid down, facing the other way, and put the covers up around his neck. The conversation was over and can you believe it – he’d actually turned from me in disgust.
I’m glad he did because it gave me time to think. Think about him, and how he might have felt. As the anger abated, I thought how Germaine Greer’s argument, such as it was, would have been completely foreign to him, with how he thinks and expresses himself. And how hurtful it would have been even to be asked this question – he’s such a good man.
Things were fine the next day and he didn’t act angry, although he never does. He wasn’t punishing me but he was hurt and of course, there was something missing (other than the sex, that is – unsurprisingly). It was a few weeks before he went back to doing things like the wink across the dinner table or walk-by pat on the bum. Forget the Female Eunuch, forget all the feminists: I was so glad when he did.
My husband has two habits I directly attribute to his being sent to boarding school at a tender age: he gets chatty at bedtime, and doesn’t like it when I ignore him.
There are many horrors he’s told me about of his time away at school and one doesn’t like to think too often about the effect that combination of parental neglect and institutional abuse has on a daily basis on supposedly functional adults – including too many in Britain’s halls of power. But of his few fond memories one that stands out is of the furious, furtive whispered conversations after lights out, attacks of muffled giggles being particularly dangerous for the real attacks it could provoke from the masters or seniors.
My childhood, on the other hand, was completely different. Bedtime for me, an only child, was a solitary, peaceful and thoroughly welcome affair, accompanied as I always was by a book. I always took myself to bed because come nighttime, there was nothing that could keep me from my bed and my book. My parents were ever-present and affectionate in their batty, somewhat absent-minded way, and where they were neglectful was in the more sober parental duties, for example celebrating rather than berating if at the breakfast table on a schoolday I confessed I’d been up until 5am because I just had to finish my latest book.
So you can see how this would have been a problem when he and I got married. We went to bed and if there were no other activities forthcoming, I wanted to read, he wanted to chat. And he wasn’t a reader, or at least not the kind of reader I am.
Out of all the things I imagined would cause trouble in our relationship, out of all the advice my mother could have given me this was completely unexpected. (More unexpected than when she tried to give me the facts of life talk before I got married at 28, bless.) Not to mention flummoxing because there were no books or agony aunts that could help with this particular dilemma. It was such a trivial thing on the outside but on the inside of both our bedroom and psyches it was positively gargantuan.
My friends were no help. I couldn’t just tell my husband to naff off like they suggested. It wasn’t just a boarding school habit, but how he acts when he feels like I’m ignoring him. He doesn’t sulk or get cross; just gets like an increasingly hyperactive puppy, dancing around me figuratively speaking, until I pay attention. This complex is courtesy of both of his parents but his mother in particular and although it’s not a conversation we’ve ever had of course it’s blatantly clear to me, the person who knows him best. My eventual compromise, which I never told him about, was this: bring bedtime forward by half an hour, have chat time, and then when he’s asleep, have reading time.
This worked well until I started reading How to Be Good by Nick Hornby. From the first page it was so compelling and hilarious that I was finding it positively torturous to put down. From one day to the next, postponing reading time in favour of chat time became unacceptable. My thinking was that being a good wife who had always put reading after her husband’s needs for years would stand me in good stead. It didn’t. Particularly since the novel is so bloody funny. I’d be laughing uproariously while simultaneously having to field incisive questions from my husband like, “Good book, is it?” and “Funny, is it?”
After a few nights of this I was quite desperate. In that desperate state – possibly unconsciously once again thinking of his parents and the bedtime stories they’d never read to him – I asked him if he’d like me to read him a bit. To my surprise, he agreed. And loved it. And asked me to keep going. Before long both of us were laughing. Although I was a few chapters in at that stage I started from the beginning, and for the length of this novel I instituted a temporary ritual where instead of having chat time together/reading time alone, I read out loud. There were nights when we literally had tears streaming down our cheeks. Nights when in what was surely a flashback for him we had to stifle our guffaws so we wouldn’t wake the children, who have their own ways of attacking parents when they’re in bed. It was wonderful and, I thought, a singular event.
The night after we finished the book, however, my husband was uncharacteristically quiet in bed. He was sitting up, and staring into the middle distance. I asked him what the matter was.
“I miss them,” he replied.
“Who?” I asked.
“Them. The people in the story.”
He meant the characters in How to Be Good. I could have hollered for joy, because then I knew he understood, he understood my relationship with reading, which is more than a relationship with the words but with the worlds inside a book. He even called the characters “people”! I fell in love with him all over again.
So I started a new ritual, where I read to us in bed. It’s not every night, because we still keep our old chat time together/reading time alone ritual, but say every three or four books I’ll pick something that I think the two of us might like, and we’ll do that instead. It wasn’t even a compromise – it’s a new thing entirely that both of us enjoy. And in a way that is, as our daughter would say, so meta, it would be a thrill to have this little story of ours read out loud back to us, maybe even in bed.
Pillow Talking is produced, narrated and edited by me, Violeta Balhas, from stories by you, the listeners and pillow talkers. Music is by Radovan Jekic. This episode’s stories were:
I Really Was a Wanker by Thylan Domas
A Fine Romance by Anonymous
Feminist Frenzy by J. Scott
How to Be Good in Bed by Edie
If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review. Pillow Talking is a real labour of love for me and your feedback through your podcatcher of choice really helps me get these stories of intimate conversations out there where more people can listen, think, smile, or maybe even get a little misty-eyed.
If you’d like more information about this week’s podcast, head over to www.pillowtalkingproject.com for my show notes, and feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions. That’s also the place to submit your story, and I’d love it if you did. They’re a privilege to receive, and I tread gently with each one.
On the next episode of Pillow Talking, The Wonder Years moment: stories about realisations that make all the difference. Until then, please take care of yourselves. And each other.