What Are You Reading?: A Question That Should Be Asked More Often than It Is

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to watch Frame Dance Productions' culinary/choreography fusion Dinner/Dance 19. The collaboration between Lydia Hance and her Framers, and chef David Leftwhich made for an interesting - and tasting - dining experience in and of itself, but the interactive nature of a Frame Dance show is best enjoyed with a friend or two. That evening I brought a new friend, and in the intervals between vegetarian dishes and dances inspired by food production, we chatted about work, potential summer plans, and the fast approaching Free Press Summer Fest. And then I asked a question I haven't asked anyone in quite a long time: What have you been reading?

I seldom make this question a point of conversation, because in all honesty I have found that I am no longer the avid reader I used to be, and would be hard-pressed to respond if the same question were posed to me. As most teachers know, no matter whether full-time or part-time, the reading we do isn't for enjoyment. Reading is part of the job. We read, but not novels, or biographies, or histories. Textbooks, student papers, and ever-changing syllabi are the primary materials of our quiet evenings. That is until the school year is over and we have three months to catch up on the bestsellers and award winners everyone has read except us. For myself and most teachers, summer is a reading binge, one that is filled with our immediate interests and preoccupations. We don't have time to ask what are friends are reading because we're too busy consuming the work of our favorite authors months after their latest titles have seen release.

But I did ask my new friend about her own reading preferences, and in doing so I discovered an enchanting book I would have never known about otherwise. She told me about her favorite book ever, a children's book by the German writer Michael Ende of The Neverending Story fame. The book was Momo, the tale of a young girl who is tasked with saving the world from time thieves. She admitted that the details of the story were blurry, but her description of Momo and her motley crew of friends, including a turtle who has the ability to see into the future, was enough to not only pique my interest, but get me excited about a book I most definitely wanted to read.

Granted, I had other options to start off my summer reading. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and East of Eden were still on the top of my to-do list, and if I wanted a genre title, I could have picked up the final installments of the Divergent or Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. But it had been ages since I enjoyed a true children's book, a fantasy not dictated by the hormonal whims of pretty/silly adolescent characters who are not so much heroic as self-centered. I wanted true magic, and it was possible that I would find it in Momo.

As in the best children's books, not only did I find magic, but I found life truths that I found particularly pertinent to my late-20s existence. Momo is a poor girl with no parents and no history. She doesn't know when she was born or where she came from. She just appears one day and settles inside the ruins of an amphitheater on the outskirts of an unnamed town. But Momo is not alone. The townspeople make her acquaintance and grow to her love, not for what she can give them, but for what she is: a listener, a true friend. Her days are filled with adventures with her cherished friends, including Guido Guide and Beppo Roadsweeper.

However, one-by-one her companions begin to disappear; they no longer come to the amphitheater to play or to bring her food or to make sure Momo is taken care of. They simply have no time. Their sudden preoccupation is due to a growing evil: the Men in Grey. They appear to the unsuspecting townspeople at random, and convince them that they must save time. Time is money after all, and to avoid losing a single dime, they must not waste time. All extraneous activities must be cut out, including small enjoyments such as a half-hour with a cup of coffee, and larger ones such as spending time with loved ones. Soon, the entire world becomes an efficient, mechanized drone of productivity with no sense of pleasure, wonder, or companionship.

I won't go into details how Momo saves the world. I'll just say it's recommended if you need a dose of heartwarming fantasy. And of course I'm going to ask friends what they're reading more often. Ende's novel wasn't just a game-changer for how I plan to spend the rest of the summer; it changed how I hope I spend the rest of the year and beyond. This year alone I've missed two baby showers, a housewarming party, and the once-in-a-lifetime thirtieth birthday of a special friend. These are defining life moments of people who are not just casual acquaintances, but people of significance. I passed on sharing in these memories because of work, or my own personal projects, or simply because I was too tired from activities I thought were important. And looking back, they really weren't.

Momo was published in 1973, but Ende's bleak portrayal of a world consumed by capitalist productivity is more relevant today than ever before. In a world where every moment is measured, timed, and taken account of, most of us still have not a single moment to spare. Our loved ones go ignored, and our passions become forgotten. And for what, exactly? We keep track of the lives in our orbit through social media, but how many stories do we really know? When was the last time we listed to our friends instead of liking and sharing status updates? Momo lived in ruins, but she was happy. With her imagination, she turned the bare necessities into luxuriant commodities. And with her friendships, she filled her loneliness with love and purpose.

It's not every day that one finds a profound book. With so many options, most of the time I don't even know where to begin finding them. After finding Momo I realized the problem was that I wasn't asking.

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Adam Castaneda
Contact: Adam Castaneda