PERSONAL

SHEREEN (NOUN): BOOKWORM, BOOKISH, RELUCTANT BIBLIOPHILE

SeniorShereenSLOSeniorPhotographerAsiaCrosonPhotographySLOPhotographer--18
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.

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3 thoughts on “SHEREEN (NOUN): BOOKWORM, BOOKISH, RELUCTANT BIBLIOPHILE

  1. I’ve been thinking about this essay all morning. Forgive me for trying to analyze you from thousands of miles away, but it seems to me that you’re struggling with your love of the humanities while you begin a career in the sciences which – it’s hard to say for sure – you may not care for much.

    If that’s wrong, the rest of this will be mush. But let’s explore it. I’m sure you’re familiar with CP Snow’s 1959 lecture called “The Two Cultures” in which he criticizes the world of the humanities for its ignorance – in fact, disdain – for the achievements of science. In particular, he recalls how negatively those in the humanities reacted to his question about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which to Snow is “the scientific equivalent of: have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

    Now, you as a working engineer may have developed such a disdain for science that nothing I can say will help. As Einstein said, “Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” But let me try. You are a rare and wonderful being, with a foot in both worlds. Today we desperately need scientists who appreciate the humanities – and book-lovers who appreciate science!

    Let me give you an example of what I mean. I love Monet. I think his Water Lilies is one of the great achievements of the human mind. His exploration of light and color is emotionally stirring. But when I look at a Monet painting, what I see is not only the genius of the artist, but also the utter overwhelming beauty of the natural world. Light and color are deep and abiding mysteries, made only deeper and more beautiful when we study them with a scientific eye. Light, it turns out, is the key to understanding both electricity and magnetism. Light (for reasons still deeply mysterious) is something the universe does.

    James Clerk Maxwell as a young child liked to catch sunbeams in a shiny silver platter and exclaim “I’ve caught the Sun.” Later, his work showed that those same sunbeams are deeply connected to electricity and magnetism. Einstein used Maxwell’s insights to show that space and time are relative, flexible, different for all observers, and alter themselves with every move we humans make. And Niels Bohr showed that each piece of light we capture is a testament to the complex and delicate structure of the atom that makes all life possible.

    When I look at a Monet painting, I’m swept away not only by the beauty and emotion of the work, the way it captures the passage of time, and the way it speaks to the temporality (and therefore the preciousness) of experience, I’m also amazed that I get to live in a universe where different wavelengths of light, each created by oscillating electrons in a dollop of chemicals on a canvas, can enter my eyes, excite distinct cones depending on those wavelengths, and cause me to see a sun-dappled pond that is both long ago and far away. To me, science only adds to my enjoyment, and my life’s work, the reason I am here, is to help other people gain this understanding, as well.

    I’ll finish with another great explorer, the mythologist Joseph Campbell. When Bill Moyers asked Campbell the question that all teachers hear, the “why do we have to learn this” question, Campbell gave the greatest answer I’ve ever heard. It’s an answer I return to again and again. He said:

    “Well, my first answer would be: go on, live your life, it’s a good life, you don’t need this. I don’t believe in being interested in a subject because it’s said to be important or interesting.”

    And then he delivered the kicker, the line to live by, the line I as a teacher remind myself of every day:

    “I believe in being caught by it somehow. And, with a proper introduction, I believe this subject can catch you.”

    Have I caught you?

    1. I’ll forgive your analysis if you forgive me for taking ages to respond to this lovely comment! My poor blog has been neglected during this whole job fiasco, but since I have a job now I guess I don’t really have any excuses.

      Anyway! You are more or less correct. I’ve always struggled with the fact that I was shoved into the sciences, but only because the humanities have had my heart for as long as I can remember. It has made my entire academic and professional life very tricky to navigate.

      I really appreciate and am moved by your Monet example, and all I can say is that I wish my brain were wired that way as well. I really envy that you are able to live in the moment like that – I wish I could recognize and appreciate the fact that my cells allow me to absorb and experience art. I’ve never seen a Monet in the flesh, but I do love museums and have been to more than a few. Every time I come across a beautiful painting or sculpture, my first and only instinct is to build a story around it. It’s a silly and childish thing to admit, but if I were to see Monet’s Water Lilies, I am one hundred percent sure I would daydream myself directly into the painting. I would almost certainly begin to build a story, and it would keep my head in the clouds for days after. A much less sophisticated reaction than yours, of course, but it’s what I do. Maybe I can teach myself to recognize how science helps me enjoy art, but I’ve never been able to do it without thinking.

      The funny thing is that I don’t hate science or engineering. I work in cell therapy development, and I’ve always found myself doing pediatric research. If I truly had a disdain for science then I think I would have lost my ability to do good work a long time ago. If I could help just one person, then all of this will be worth it. I need to keep reminding myself of that.

      Your comment has really given me a lot to think about! Things may not get easier for me, but you’re absolutely right in saying that we need scientists and book-lovers to appreciate each other’s realms more. We are a rare breed, and if we truly are useful then I guess I’ll just have to keep on keeping on.

      1. Congratulations on the new job! I hope it brings you both comfort and fulfillment.

        I think your Monet story is beautiful. As I age, I become more and more interested in many different arts, but in the end I always come back to language as my favorite. I’d love to read the story you tell about you among the water lilies.

        I am confident you will find your own way and change the world in both big and small ways. I can’t wait to see what you do next!

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