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Wordplay

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While perusing a book of Robert Browning poetry, I spotted out of the corner of my eye, movement on the opposite page. Assuming a spider or ant had inadvertently found its way onto the pages of my book, I turned to flick it away. But alas, the page held nothing but the rows of words making up A Grammarian's Funeral.

I wiped my wire framed spectacles on the sleeve of my knitted sweater. As a professor of literature at the local university, my eyes are pushed to their limits every evening. So at the age of forty-three, I am no stranger to the tricks they play.

My classes are the most popular at the university, filled with students who adore me and my love of literature. By the end of the semester, they, too, have found romance in the written word.

To keep that romance alive, I sit night after night on the big cushioned recliner in my study and read book upon book, trying to find items my students will adore.

With the book of Browning's poems finished, I replaced it on the bookshelf and pulled down Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. By page 36, I was once again sensing movement on the opposite side. Ignoring it, I moved onto page 37. It made no sense. All the words appeared to be there but shuffled like a giant anagram. The printer's plates must have gotten mixed. I did my best to make sense of it and turned the page.

While reading 38, page 39 came alive. Instinctively, my head turned in the direction of the movement, and as my eyes fell upon the page, it ceased. But the words were once again misplaced. When I looked away and returned again, they were jumbled even further.

I held the book at arm's length to keep it all in sight. On the next page I found the word "confidence" sliding down like a drop of wet paint. Placing my finger beneath it, the word continued to roll over my fingernail, smearing it with black ink.

I washed my hands in the kitchen and returned to the book. A gaping hole now appeared where "confidence" had been. The only rational explanation I could deduce was that the book was not properly dried by the printer. I placed it on the windowsill so that the morning sun would dry its pages.

To forget the incident, I turned to a collection of John Updike short stories. Opening to a random page, I was surprised as the words fell onto my lap. They formed a black heap, resembling a lint ball of letters. I scooped them up and placed them back on the page. They stood there in an unrecognizable heap.

John Updike joined Hawthorne by the window.

Shaken by these bizarre occurrences, I decided to leave my apartment and go to the corner coffee shop. They all knew me there and I often encountered my students reading the literature I'd assigned. The shop was empty that night, which suit me fine. I sat in the corner and flipped through local magazines until the workers dimmed the lights and put up the chairs.


After classes the next day, I returned to my study to conquer my fears. I chose Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night for the job. The first fifty pages passed without incident. Then I felt something crawling up my arm. It was the word "simplicity." Startled, I flicked it away like a bug. It hit the wall, splattering its letters into ambiguity.

Now the page was alive with words wriggling and squirming like ants on a discarded piece of bread. I reflexively dropped the book. It landed face down, pouring words onto the floor.

From the kitchen I grabbed a roll of paper towels to scoop up the book and discarded words. I had no choice but to dispose of the book. Letters dripped from the towel, leaving a trail to the waste can under my desk. After washing the blotches of ink off my hands, I pulled out the vacuum and gave my study a good cleaning.

The bookcase stood before me like a monolith. Letters slithered out from the tops of books; words peeled themselves off the spines. They rolled off the shelves and chased after me. I ran out of my study and slammed the door behind me. Quickly I grabbed a towel from the bathroom and covered the bottom of the door so the words would be unable to slip through.

The written word was rebelling. How could I go on teaching its beauty if it no longer obeyed my command?


I feigned enthusiasm in teaching the next few days. When called on my lack of motivation, I told my students I was feeling a bit under the weather. Lucky for students who did not do their reading assignments.

My study remained closed. When I summoned the courage to spy, I found words rolling off the bookcase like lemmings into the sea.

Just the other day, I found the word "curious" crawling across the kitchen counter. I grabbed a sponge and wiped the word into the sink, then doused it with water until it was sucked into the drain. Instantly I hit the garbage disposal.

When the hum of its rotor came to a stop, a strange feeling of guilt overtook me. That word was not here to cause me any harm, but still, I cut it down in its prime. Words had been my friends all my life. When the other children's ridicule cast me into the local libraries for endless summers, they were there for me. They never held me back. Why should I hold them back?

I opened the door to my study to let them roam. It was as much their home as it was mine. I pulled Hawthorne and Updike off the windowsill and Fitzgerald out of the trash to return them to their rightful places on the bookshelf. From that day on, I had a new relationship with the written word.

The words are always full of life—hanging from the ceiling, raiding the refrigerator and doing all sorts of nasty things to the inside of my rarely watched television. But when I reach for one of my favorite books, they jump to attention. If any words are missing, they do their best to imitate them. Occasionally, if they think I'm getting bored, they'll dance to entertain me.

Once again, I'm living in harmony with words. And now dear reader, you've learned that you can, too.

As I write this soliloquy, the words are flying off the paper.

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