Me, Being Henry Bemis: A Reader

Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis
Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis in the episode, “Time Enough At Last.”

“Free to a good home.” That was the phrase scribbled on a piece of paper atop a stack of books on the workroom table in my office. It is customary for books to be available for the taking, working for a scholarly society of academics. I greedily absconded with four of the five books and began reading the inside jacket of Mark C. Taylor’s, After God. No more than one paragraph into the book description, I was overcome with the memory of my mother’s playful chiding all throughout my childhood and even now that I am just like Burgess Meredith. My mom would call me “Burgess” all the time because of my deep passion for books. Actor Burgess Meredith, played the character, Henry Bemis, a bank teller whose love for reading alienated him at work and home. She should have been calling me, “Henry” since she thought I was like the character Burgess portrayed.

Family members would ask my mom, “Where is Tweet [short for “Tweetie pie”, my nickname]? I know she somewhere with her head stuck in a book!” During trips to the mall, I would spend hours in the bookstore in search of my next “feast” of books. I never left without 3 or 4 thick paperbacks. My mom rarely, if ever, complained nor put a limit on my reading. I will always appreciate the way my mom nurtured me in this way. In high school, I frequented a local used bookstore that let me trade and/or sell books back for cash or store credit. To admit it now is a little embarrassing, but I derived so much joy from these trips. I was driving and didn’t have to feel guilty about my mother waiting for me.

As I was sitting there, my mind racing back through those memories, I thought of that Twilight Zone episode, “Time Enough At Last,” my mom so treasured. I recall watching it as a child and finding it sort of humorous. After finding the episode in its entirety on You Tube and watching it again, it is a bit tragic.  You can watch the episode below, divided into three parts, each a little over 8 minutes in duration.

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

My mother was spot on in her assessment of me. I am a lot like Henry Bemis in my love of literature and the past time of reading. I, too, have wished for more time to indulge. Henry Bemis lives in a world that values productivity and time clocks over ideas and intellectual curiosity, militarism and power, over peace and truth. Henry’s lack of community and conversation partners drives him deeper and deeper into a world of aloneness, but not loneliness. His beloved books provide him with a way of escape, quite literally. The bank vault he retreats to for a lunch of solace with his newspaper and book protects him from a world that has finally imploded on itself through the use of weapons of mass destruction. I think this story provides a healthy critique of Henry Bemis’ chosen path of escapism.

Why is Henry working as a bank teller? No doubt he is smarter than everyone around him. Why isn’t he out there spreading his ideas? Why doesn’t his passion for learning cause him to want to engage the world around him in a more transformative manner? In the story, we learn that an election had just past. Henry offended a woman by staring at the campaign button on her chest. Ever the curious, Henry wanted to talk about the election, but she thought he was staring at her chest. Was Henry a political junkie like I am now? Maybe or maybe not. He didn’t have much of a response to the headline about the H-bomb, so maybe not. His marital relationship was toxic evidenced by the way his wife treated him. She was obviously angry but most of all heartbroken by his neglect. Had he been more sensitive or even cognizant of her need for his time, then he could have found a way to get her interested in sharing his passion or being more moderate in his reading. Had she been more sensitive to his love, then she could have found ways to share this past time with him.

For me, this story is tragic, because Henry Bemis obviously either ignored or missed the opportunity to pursue a more suitable vocation. Both before and after the bombing, his life had no purpose or meaning. Yes, he derived pleasure from reading when allowed the chance, but always in isolation. After the bombing, when he finally was able to read with abandon, his glasses break, thereby, removing the means to partake of what he sees as a tremendous gift.

I hazard to acknowledge that I am more like Burgess than I care to admit. Naming is so powerful and my mom named me, Burgess, early and often. Lord knows, my husband and daughter have had to reign me in more times than I want to say when I have indulged too much in reading books, digesting articles, and feasting on all that information out there in cyber space, the library, and bookstores. Thankfully, neither my husband, daughter, or community is anything like Henry Bemis’. I get it. I must learn from Henry Bemis. We must learn from him. We must all be alive to ourselves and our call, our vocation, lest we be willful accomplises to the oppressive forces that flourish in indifference, defeatism, and denial.

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4 thoughts on “Me, Being Henry Bemis: A Reader

  1. Awesome post! As a fellow voracious reader, I can totally relate. Personally, I don’t think I spend ENOUGH time reading. It’s such a wonderful, simple pleasure, and I find myself too plugged in to technology to make time for it anymore. You’ve inspired me to redouble my efforts in that. Sitting here in front of the computer I think is my version of Henry Bemis’s escapism into books. So I think Im going to unplug right now and go pick up the book by the Dalai Lama I’ve started. Have a good evening! And keep reading, just remember to not stay buried in it so long you forget to put into practice the things you learn from it.

    And feel free to visit my blog anytime! I loves me some comments!

  2. i truly love this post. as i look at the stacks of books sitting all over my apartment, i wish for the time to bury myself off some place where i can read them all. yes, the time will come when i will be able to touch all the pages, read all the words and stories, and be completely content with the joy that reading brings.

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