PERSONAL

SHEREEN (NOUN): BOOKWORM, BOOKISH, RELUCTANT BIBLIOPHILE

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Shereen, 25, 5’0, biomedical engineer, and bookworm extraordinaire. © Asia Croson Photography.

This post isn’t 100% about Shakespeare, and it probably doesn’t belong on this blog. I wanted to write about books and, in a way, write about myself. My paper journal has seen far too much of this nonsense, so I thought I’d write everything out here instead. I’ve never been very good at suffocating my urge to write. And, as you’ll find out, I’ve never been able to suffocate my love for reading, either.

ACT I. EARLY CHILDHOOD

One of my earliest memories features me sitting in a classroom filled with colorful plastic chairs. In the memory, I am sitting on one of these hard chairs. My teacher is by my side, and my classmates are sitting on the carpeted ground before me.

And I’m reading to them.

It’s a cardboard book about a white bunny who loves to garden. I remember feeling especially pleased about being able to read the word vegetable with no trouble. The book was short, the print was massive, but I was the only child in the classroom who could read properly. And, naturally, I wanted to tell everybody about this white bunny and his garden. It was so important that I share the story. My life depended on it.

At home, I had a book called The Story of the Tooth Fairy. It was a small, flimsy thing. A Little Golden Book, but not the sturdy kind. I was fascinated by it. The illustrations were done in watercolors, and the aesthetic was positively dreamy. Pastels blended into each other seamlessly, and everything glowed in shades of powder pink and daffodil yellow. Now, the book didn’t glow, obviously, but I could see the pages shine nonetheless. I daydreamed endlessly about lounging on fluffy blue clouds and dipping my small hands in sparkling lavender-colored brooks. I dreamed about being a fairy in a pink flower petal dress with big, pearly wings. When Shakespeare wrote about fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I pictured similar things. In my mind, the entire story played out in watercolors, and I felt immediately drawn to the simple idea of fairies. All because of The Story of the Tooth Fairy. In my every day life, I still see myself drawn to the aesthetic of that book. I pick out pastel dresses and try to surround myself with the same dreaminess that that book enveloped me in. How I present myself to the world, partially informed by a Little Golden Book.

When I wasn’t daydreaming about being a fairy, I was reading other things. I remember A Kiss for Little Bear – I loved Little Bear to pieces. I remember laughing over the hen finding kisses disgusting. And, oh, those Little Critter books. Just Grandma and Me was a constant companion of mine. The bright colors from that book now mix in with the dreamy colors from The Story of the Tooth Fairy in my adult life. And I still remember the first sentence: “We went to the beach, just Grandma and me.”

ACT II. CHILDHOOD

In the third grade, I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. My teacher, Miss Hannah, wasn’t quite sure what to do with me. That book was the sixth grade reader. She told me as much, and I told her it was fine, because I wouldn’t mind reading it again. Roald Dahl took over my life at this point, with his dark and funny stories of triumphant children. I read The Witches, George’s Marvelous Medicine, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, Matilda, Boy, and so many others. My favorite was The Witches, despite being a little Matilda myself.

It was in third grade that I began to write stories of my own. We were asked to write stories during class one day, so I did. I wrote a story about a neglected little girl who made friends with (brace yourself) the ghosts that haunted her swimming pool. Looking back, I think I was a bit lonely, with all my daydreaming and reading. I had a best friend, but I think a part of me wanted to fit in better. But instead of actually being a social butterfly, I decided to write a story about befriending ghosts. Swimming pool ghosts.

My teacher, who I’m sure was baffled by me, took it around and read it to the other classes. I felt very shy about the whole thing, but happy with the scratch-and-sniff sticker I received for it.

You know what’s funny? That story was more than one page long. It was long, and it had paragraph breaks, and to this day I still don’t know how to be succinct.

I also unknowingly met one of my first loves in third grade. I was in a British primary school in Abu Dhabi, so we weren’t taught about the colors of the rainbow via Roy G. Biv. A big painted rhyme was pinned onto the board on the left side of the classroom. It read: Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain. I remember idly wondering two things: who Richard was, and what the word ‘vain,’ meant.

Richard, of course, was Richard III of the House of York. The dictionary told me what vain meant.

ACT III. EARLY ADOLESCENCE

Every year, at my British primary school, we were assigned ‘topics.’ We focused on each topic for half a year. They consisted of things like space, the rainforest, and Greek mythology.

Greek mythology was an absolute goldmine for me. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be reading these stories. While my classmates played outside, I huddled up on a bench and read endlessly. My mother had bought a book for my sister and I on the very topic, probably because she wanted to supplement our schoolwork. I remember seeking it out – The Greek Gods by Evslin, Evslin, and Hoopes. I loved all the stories, but I loved the chapter on Demeter most of all. In the story, Demeter’s daughter Persephone pulls at a berry bush, which causes a great chasm to appear in the earth. “Out of the hole leaped six black horses, dragging behind them a golden chariot. In the chariot stood a tall figure in a flowing black cape. On his head was a black crown. She had no time to scream. He reached out his long arm, snatched her into the chariot, and lashed his horses. They curvetted in the air, and plunged into the hole again.”

I was obsessed. The story of Hades and Persephone has haunted me from that point onward. As it turned out, The Greek Gods was highly inaccurate, but it didn’t matter. It was the first time I met Persephone, and I related to her with a vengeance. She didn’t have very much freedom until she became Queen of the Underworld. I wondered when my time would come to ascend the throne.

And, you know what? Some things stay with you forever. Persephone has stayed with me, and I’ve hunted down every scrap of her story to the best of my ability. I have a nostalgic fondness for pomegranates, I was delighted when I found out that scholars compare Perdita to Persephone in The Winter’s Tale, the dress I’m wearing in the picture above was purchased just because it reminded me of her myth. Recently, I began to read a webcomic retelling of the myth of Hades and Persephone. The artist decided to make Persephone very small, and with a pixie cut.

“Just like me,” I thought, giddy.

I didn’t think seeing a Persephone that looked like me mattered anymore. Oh, it used to. Very much. Every depiction showed an absolutely lovely Persephone, with long, flowing hair dotted with flowers. I was (and still am, to a degree), a gawky little thing, all bones and sharp edges. There was something soothing about seeing a Persephone with short hair. Some things never stop mattering, I suppose.

Greek mythology is a great love of mine, but I’ve always been able to love a great many things at once. While I dealt with the onslaught of passion for it, I was introduced to yet another love: Kensuke’s Kingdom by Michael Morpurgo.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was no longer the sixth grade reader. Instead, we were supposed to read Kensuke’s Kingdom and Dakota of the White Flats by Philip Ridley. My class adored Dakota. Kensuke’s Kingdom was labeled boring – boring, and yet there I was, violently clinging to it. The writing was so hushed, so lyrical. I couldn’t believe that someone was writing for me – for a kid – in such a way. It influenced my writing in a way I can’t describe, and even if I do struggle to write lyrically, I still feel the desire to. I took the book home to my mother and begged her to read it too. She did, despite being in her 40s. She told me she loved it, and I felt validated.

ACT IV. ADOLESCENCE

I switched schools for the seventh grade, but only because my primary school stopped at sixth. I found myself torn away from a cozy library and from teachers who loved my attachment to books, and tossed into a concrete jungle where English classes were a big joke. I wasn’t outwardly devastated, but I’m sure a part of me felt a bit deflated. We read these awful books published by the school – to this day, I’m not sure why. Maybe because they wanted to give us the most bland material possible, devoid of any and all suggestions of the erotic or obscene.

There weren’t very many bookstores in Abu Dhabi, and I doubt there are very many now. Book Corner sat unnoticed in the mall, and I remember the dusty scent of it to this day. It was never crowded, never. While my friends spent money elsewhere, I would wander into Book Corner. If school wasn’t giving me good books, then I was going to find them myself.

What I found was the entire genre of historical romance. Book Corner sold these anthologies of historical romances – each book had four novels to them. They were huge, and I loved them. One thing that irked me was that the heroines were never like me. They were all very pretty and soft, and I wasn’t either of those things at that age. Softness, in particular, escaped me. I know I jokingly say that I have Beatrice’s sharp tongue, but it’s not exactly a joke. I’d find heroines like me later, but it drove me up the wall at the time.

As a teenager, I took a copy of The Color Purple by Alice Walker from my sister’s bookshelf. Yet another book that changed me. I developed a fondness for telling stories through letters, and an intense desire to seek out stories about women overcoming injustice. I wonder what injustices I was feeling that I needed these stories so much. I don’t re-read books very often, but I re-read The Color Purple. Nothing in the world gave me more peace than the very last line: “I think this is the youngest us ever felt. Amen.”

I also discovered F. Scott Fitzgerald around this time, and yet another passionate love affair began. This Side of Paradise ruined me, and nothing could fix it. The last line seeped into my bones. I know myself, but that is all. I felt the same as a teenager. I thought I knew myself, but that was all I knew. Everything else slipped through my fingertips.

For all my love affairs with writers, nothing could have prepared me for my love affair with William Shakespeare. My entire life turned upside down when I was handed Richard III. School was finally prepping me for external exams, which meant that their own books wouldn’t do. Baby’s first Shakespeare, except I wasn’t a baby at all. I was in the tenth grade, and I should have been reading Shakespeare for ages before Richard III. For once, I had a teacher who cared. I can’t tell you how much of a difference that made. Yes, I was reading at home, but I needed someone to tell me that it was normal to love Shakespeare. It was weird, dusty, incomprehensible, but it became my life.

Richard became my life. I was an expert on the Wars of the Roses. Everybody teased me endlessly, but I didn’t care. Shakespeare and I had finally met, and it was explosive. I’d always been a very thoughtful, reflective person. Really, I was an oddball. I didn’t fit in at all, despite being an Arab girl living in an Arab country. I was always thinking, always scribbling things down in my journal. Shakespeare showed up and asked the same questions that plagued me. Oh, validation.

After Richard III came Henry IV, Part One. I’m pretty sure my school thought they were being clever, avoiding ‘raunchy’ plays like Romeo and Juliet. I was unsure – what if Richard III was meant to be my only love?

I was, of course, wrong. Henry IV, Part One quickly became my other love. Hal was everything to me, and I defended him in class with every breath I took. Try harder to understand. He’s struggling. He doesn’t know who he is, he only knows what people want him to be. Maybe I related to him then – I certainly relate to him now. As I grew older, Amory Blaine’s last words about knowing himself became less relatable. As I became more lost, I thought about Hal. He was lost, too.

We read Jane Eyre along with Henry IV, Part One. I remember my teacher secretly telling me about the symbolism of Mr. Rochester’s bed being on fire. She knew I wouldn’t blab. She knew I needed to learn how to pick out symbols and motifs, even if they were a bit scandalous. I didn’t find a kindred spirit in Jane, though I should have. I felt her loneliness keenly, I understood why she felt so odd. The boys teased me when we read Jane Eyre, telling me repeatedly that if Jane looked like anybody, it would be me. I couldn’t help but think about how often Jane was called plain. I forgot about Mr. Rochester comparing her to fae-folk, a compliment that would delight me now. All I heard was: you’re a plain oddball, just like Jane.

I couldn’t let anybody have the satisfaction of calling me plain, so I simply told them that I’d be happy to trade spots with Jane. At least she didn’t have to suffer idiots like them.

ACT V. ADULTHOOD

What am I doing here? I thought, sitting in an engineering class. I was a freshman, newly moved to California from the depths of the Middle East. What the hell was MATLAB? I didn’t care about programming.

It took time, but I eventually found a small used bookstore in my town. I picked up Pride and Prejudice, probably encouraged by all of the historical romance novels I had read as a teenager. Remember how badly I wanted to see someone like me in a historical romance novel? I finally recognized myself in Elizabeth Bennet. I should have seen pieces of myself in Jane Eyre, but I had been too preoccupied with protecting myself from jabbing remarks about the plainness we allegedly shared. As for Elizabeth, well, I know she’s a very popular character to relate to. I was sure that my connection to her was different, though. Maybe it was wishful thinking. I knew the plot of Pride and Prejudice, but it didn’t lose its magic. I remember sitting in a biomaterials class with the book open flat on my lap. I wasn’t listening to the professor, of course. What I was doing, however, was biting down on my hand, trying very hard not to vocalize the excitement I felt when Mr. Darcy professed his love to Elizabeth. And when she rejected him? I was ecstatic. Definitely not something I could express in a hot, crowded classroom.

There was one quarter where I desperately needed a single unit. Seminars at UC Davis were one unit each, and I remember going through the list. There was one about dinosaurs, another about witches. Near the bottom of the list was one called Shakespeare and Religion. I hadn’t read a play in ages. I had tried after Henry IV, Part One, but my own feelings of fear and inadequacy stopped me dead in my tracks. I signed up, remembering that I had an affinity for Shakespeare. I stubbornly refused to acknowledge just how much he meant to me.

So I walk into Shakespeare and Religion, and find out that we’re reading Antony and Cleopatra. And I felt like I had been hit by a train, but in a good way. In my engineering classes, I was silent. In this class,  I spoke and spoke and spoke until I couldn’t speak anymore. Every week, we had to give a summary of a scene, and every week my group would beg me to do ours.

“It sounds so good when you talk about it,” I remember a girl saying. “Like it means something.”

Shakespeare meant everything. But the seminar came and went. I was still scared of reading outside of a classroom environment. Instead, I had my first taste of Hemingway. I read A Moveable Feast, and found myself deeply in love with simple writing. I went back to Roald Dahl, picking up his adult novel My Uncle Oswald. I loved that book to pieces. I used to read it during my electrical systems class, pushing it flat in my lap just like I had done with Pride and Prejudice. It was a huge challenge, trying to stifle my laughter. Once, on my way to school, I became so engrossed in it that I found myself on an idle, empty bus on campus. I had no idea how long I had been sitting there, just reading. I hadn’t noticed any activity around me, any movement. Nothing. Just Shereen and another one of her books.

I started taking summer classes, just so I could get everything done in time. With every engineering class, I would take something “fun.” I told everyone it was for balance, but I was desperate not to lose what little spark I had left. Oh, I was so miserable in my major classes. Literally anything else brought me to life – religious studies, Ancient Roman history, you name it. I took comparative literature one summer, despite being warned against it.

That was the first time I read Crime and Punishment. That novel took over my life, and I felt it become apart of me. Every book I’ve ever loved is somewhere inside of me. They make up my bones, my vessels. It’s never instantaneous – when I read Crime and Punishment, I felt it sink into my being when Raskolnikov asked his mother if she’d still love him even if he had done something bad. I was shaken when she told him she would, she always would. Tears pricked my eyes right in the middle of a coffee shop. I chastised myself quickly – I don’t get choked up in public (as a general rule), and they were just words.

We also read Faust in that class, and I was reminded of how much I loved plays. Mephistopheles reminded me of Richard, in a way. Scheming, manipulative, downright hilarious. One day, while leaving my comparative literature class, I saw a board of flyers advertising summer abroad programs. One of them was called Shakespeare – Live! I looked at it very doubtfully. Me? In London? Studying Shakespeare? Standing where he once stood, acting like I knew what I was talking about?

The fine print talked about a scholarship, so I decided I would try to go for that. I wrote a short, sharp piece about what Shakespeare meant to me. It was very dry, definitely not an emotional mess like this post is coming out to be. But I got the scholarship. I went to London. I read Henry V for the first time, and I saw Hal again. It felt like coming home, even if I was in the middle of a brand new place. Standing in the Globe, I felt like myself. I’m always such a mess of doubts, of worries and hangups. Everything was quiet that summer in 2012. I was just a girl who loved Shakespeare and, strangely, I felt loved right back.

After that, nothing. I felt like Persephone, leaving an open field of flowers and finding myself in the Underworld. But she took command of that situation, so I did the same. I got my Bachelor’s degree, I moved on to a Master’s program. Everything would be okay, I thought, as long as I had a bookshelf to come home to.

But, of course, I got frustrated. I sat down in an undergraduate Shakespeare class two years ago and refused to budge. The professor didn’t know what to do with me, at first. He had a class of sleepy kids, most of them jocks, and me, in the front, squirming in my seat over Henry V. We’d sit on the floor outside of the classroom and talk about Shakespeare’s women. I am immediately anxious when talking to fellow scientists, but I had no problem sharing all of my thoughts with this old man, even if he did have decades of Shakespeare under his belt. When that class ended, I felt as if I had been punched in the gut. I went home, and made a decision.

I was going to read all of Shakespeare’s plays, because I loved him and I knew I would do anything to understand his stories. My small studio apartment began to fill with plays. I drag my Henry V poster with me wherever I go, but it belonged in that studio more than anywhere else. I belonged there too, reading Shakespeare by the light of my pink salt lamp.

My whole life, reading has brought me peace. It has helped me answer questions about myself. And while I was doing all this reading, I was out making friends, surrounding myself with trustworthy people. And I loved being around my friends as much as I loved reading. A problem arose, though. I wanted to be a social butterfly, and I wanted to quit with the books altogether. And, it may shock you to read this, but this happened while I was trying to read all of Shakespeare’s plays. I was close to graduating, and I felt instability creep up on me. I was angry at myself for sitting in my bed and reading. What had books ever done for me other than make me sad and fill me with longing for a different life? When will you get your head out of your books and daydreams and finally live? I wrote in my journal.

My therapist tapped her pen across her notebook and regarded me thoughtfully. I was sitting across from her, wringing my hands together and trying not to cry. I felt stupid, having told her about my book-related dilemma, but it had been on my mind. She’d interrupted me with questions like, “Do you relate to characters in Shakespeare’s plays?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, without hesitation.

Now, she was looking at me as I tried not to dissolve in her office.

“If all of this made you an outcast as a child, why didn’t you just conform?”

I had no idea what to say, so I said, “It…was the books.”

That didn’t make any sense, obviously. But I tried to explain. I couldn’t leave the books behind. The stories, the characters, they were everything to me. They had made me feel alive in a way I couldn’t describe. How could I leave them? And my favorite characters had never conformed. Books taught me that it wasn’t right, betraying yourself like that.

And my dilemma wasn’t their fault, really. There were other things that were preventing me from feeling completely free. I just chose to blame books because a book had been in my hand when I’d reached my breaking point.

“You know,” my therapist said, “you really light up when you talk about Shakespeare. I think you need it in your life.”

“I know,” I said, feeling broken up about it. “Why couldn’t I have a normal hobby? Why does it have to be this?”

You’re rolling your eyes now, I’m sure. I know I’m not the only bookworm in the world. But I live and work among scientist and engineers. It’s so hard to find people like me, people who value emotion over logic and words over equations. There are people out there, I’ve found, who actually love engineering.

“I’d love engineering if…I wish I were bad at it,” I said desperately. “Bad at Shakespeare, bad at reading books.”

She looked at me pointedly.

“No, I don’t,” I admitted, crumpling under her knowing gaze.

I had to learn how to let myself love books again. I never stopped loving them, obviously. I just got angry at myself every time I spent an evening in with one in my hand. The only solution was to keep reading.

Now, as I apply frantically for jobs, I fill my spare hours with reading. The genre? Historical romance, of course.

Talk about coming full circle.

RANKING · SHAKESPEARE

SHAKESPEARE: RANKED

Well, this has been a long time coming. I really wanted to do something fun and new for my ranking post, and then life happened. I finally had some time to myself today, so here we are. Surprise! It’s an unscripted, podcast-esque 58 minute disaster for your ears (complete with super chill Elizabethan lute music)! Perfect to help you pass the time while you do your chores.

“But you don’t have a voice for radio at all, Shereen,” you think, immediately clicking pause 41 seconds in. I can acknowledge that, so here’s my list for those of you who just want to get down to the nitty gritty of it:

COMEDIES

  1. Measure for Measure
  2. Much Ado About Nothing
  3. Love’s Labor’s Lost
  4. The Tempest
  5. The Merry Wives of Windsor
  6. As You Like It
  7. Twelfth Night
  8. The Winter’s Tale
  9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  10. All’s Well That Ends Well
  11. The Taming of the Shrew
  12. The Merchant of Venice
  13. The Comedy of Errors
  14. The Two Gentlemen of Verona

TRAGEDIES

  1. Julius Caesar
  2. Romeo and Juliet
  3. Othello
  4. Hamlet
  5. Antony and Cleopatra
  6. King Lear
  7. Titus Andronicus
  8. Coriolanus
  9. Cymbeline
  10. Troilus and Cressida
  11. Timon of Athens
  12. Macbeth

HISTORIES

  1. Richard III
  2. Henry V
  3. Henry IV, Part One
  4. Henry IV, Part Two
  5. Henry VI, Part Three
  6. Henry VI, Part Two
  7. Henry VI, Part One
  8. Richard II
  9. King John
  10. Henry VIII

NOT IN THE FIRST FOLIO – and therefore gets to be #1 in its own category!

  1. Pericles

Now all that’s left for me is to make posts about the remaining plays, write about fiction based on Shakespeare’s plays, and – well, you’ll see.

Happy listening/reading!