I remember the first time it happened. I was still a kid, 9 or 10, maybe 11. It was a perfect summer day, and I was sitting inside reading a book. I could hear the neighborhood kids amassing outside.
I kept reading.
These were my friends, kids I’d known forever. Back in the day, we didn’t make playdates or go to adult-arranged meetups at parks. The kids who lived on the street were automatic, everyday playmates.
We’d drift outside after breakfast and stay out until we got called in for lunch. Then we were back outside, roaming the suburban block or two that we claimed as ours, until dinner. In summer, we were allowed to stay out until sunset or, as we grew older, until dark.
All yards were fair game (fences were rare), but ours was a favorite because it was big, open and shaped like a baseball diamond, though the kids my age (mostly girls) rarely played ball.
Instead, we cycled through the standard games — kick the can, sculpture maker, red rover — that had somehow filtered down to us from the kids before us and the kids before them.
We didn’t think much about playing. We just did it, all the time.
And here I was — what? Opting out?
The kids were calling. It could have been my name or “ollie ollie in free.” I could hear their voices rising in a high-pitched, singsong kid chorus — Jan and Chris, Lorna and Lynn. But I was meeting Ponyboy and Sodapop and Two-Bit in the pages of “The Outsiders.”
And I realized I was torn. I couldn’t decide whether to join my friends outside or stay with the friends I’d met in my book.
The thought startled me. And that was the moment that marked me for life: I was a book nerd.
I didn’t call myself that then. It took a few years (decades?) to own it. At the time, I wasn’t about to advertise the fact. As it was, I didn’t have all that much going for me. I was a short, gawky kid with a bad pixie haircut, knobby knees and a big mouth. Letting it be known that I was inside reading wouldn’t have helped my standing in the neighborhood.
I was forced to face my first literary dilemma: What was better, reading or playing? Friends real or friends imagined? It seemed like an either-or decision, one I had to reason through.
On the book side, I had just met these new friends. They were exciting, boys(!) and their lives were so different from mine. On the play side, it was a nice day, my buddies were in the yard and even though I didn’t have very many years on me, I understood that people — the real ones — didn’t last forever.
And that’s what it came down to, what was more ephemeral.
I dropped my book, raced through the kitchen and out the screen door, letting it slam behind me.
So many years later, when the pandemic hit, I made a mad dash for bookstores and started reading, almost compulsively. Reading helped me escape our uncertain new reality. Friends imagined took preference over friends real.
As time went on, I got more comfortable meeting friends and family outside and with the recommended social distancing.
I planned a couple of porch dinners, went on a few picnics, even visited a sidewalk cafe. I relished the time I got to spend with people I suddenly saw so seldom. I didn’t ditch reading entirely, but it took a back seat to real life.
Now that summer’s over, I find myself stocking up on books again. But I’m not hunkering down. Not yet. I hope to spend another month or more spending as much time as I can with my real friends in real life.
Come winter, I’ll have plenty of time for books and the people I meet in their pages, some of whom do indeed become very good friends.
Connie Nelson is senior editor for lifestyles for the Star Tribune.