Ubiñas: Two books, one Philly character's story

Milton Barham spends his lunch break in Reading Terminal Market, reading two books at the same time. Barham first realized that he could read two books simultaneously when he was in 9th grade. Since then, he has been reading 800-900 books a year. He has read these two books -- "The Man God Uses" by Henry and Tom Blackbay, and "What Jesus Demands From The World" by John Piper -- about 10 times each. (RACHEL WISNIEWSKI / Staff Photographer)

IT'S NOT UNUSUAL to see someone reading a book while chowing down at Reading Terminal Market. Now, two is a whole different story - Milton Barham's story.

Just as he does most every day at lunch, Barham recently sat at a table inside the bustling market reading two books at once.

In his right hand, Barham held John Piper's What Jesus Demands From the World. In his left, Joyce Meyer's Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind.

If the two-fisted reader felt the judgmental stares of passers-by, he didn't let on. Same with the snickering and drive-by psychological assessments.

He's crazy.

He's a weirdo.

He's a show-off.

He's trying to pick up women. (This theory no doubt spurred by his exquisite attire, from his smart fedora to his tailored suits with matching ties and pocket squares to his spit-shined shoes.)

So, which is he? You decide.

The story of Philly's "Two Book Man," one of the many monikers he's picked up in the years he's been doubling up on his reading list, starts long before Barham and his books began showing up at the Terminal Market and, before that, at the Gallery.

Barham, 51, was raised by his grandparents in Virginia, the only one of four siblings to be sent south while the others stayed behind with their mother in New York.

Unable to get answers about why he was the one chosen to live with loving, yet elderly, grandparents, the lonely Barham searched for answers in his books.

"I was separated from my mother, alone with my grandparents," he said. "The only recourse I had were my books."

He liked the feeling of security that came with always having a book in his hands; having a second one just felt natural.

He admits that when he did this in front of kids his age, he was probably doing it for the attention, a clever ploy, he thought, to make himself interesting to his peers. But when it backfired and he just ended up being teased - "Weirdo," they yelled - his books became a shield from the hateful words he didn't have to hear if he just concentrated hard enough on the ones he read.

He allows for the possibility that all these years later - he's now an accountant and financial analyst for the U.S. Department of Justice on Arch Street - his books remain as much companions as protection from the mean things people still mutter about him.

Except that, sometime in the past five or so years, as he started to become more interested in ministry and motivational speaking and in books about those subjects, Barham noticed a change.

Suddenly he wasn't just a target of ridicule, but a point of curiosity that made many people stop and talk.

"It's not about religion," he says. "It's about relationships. They see the books, and something stirs in them. They want to know: 'What are you doing?' 'How are you doing that?' "

It's a good question. First, the books are always similar in topic. (Piper's book about what Jesus demands from the world is a constant in Barham's two-book rotation, but he tends to sub in others as his second.) He starts with a sentence in one book and reads right across to the sentence in the other book. Lately, he's been throwing in a third book that he studies more than reads. He insists that he retains it all.

He does this at home, at church - despite sometimes getting the hairy eyeball from fellow parishioners - and each weekday at the market, usually at a table right next to the Riehl Deli & Cheeze Shop. What starts off as curiosity soon turns into ministry, with people confiding in him about their lives and troubles, grateful to have someone listen.

In fact, his willingness to listen is what attracted his wife of five years, Jeanette, with whom he lives in Mount Airy.

Jeanette, who also works in Center City, knew about Barham's quirky habit before they married, but it was never really an issue until friends and co-workers would tell her, their judgment in their raised eyebrows, that they had just seen Milton reading two books . . . at . . . the . . . same . . . time?

As any good wife would, Jeanette got Milton a Kindle.

But it didn't break Milton of his peculiar habit. And it wouldn't have, he insisted, even if she'd gotten him two.

"I love the feel of the books in my hands," he said.

Without his books, passers-by wouldn't be able to wonder about him, maybe ask him a question or two and, often, sit and talk for a while.

"Lots of characters around here," a woman muttered to her companion as they quickly passed by Barham and his books.

Barham chuckled; he has no problem with that.

"No one wants to be exposed for who they really are," he said. "Too often people are afraid to be exactly who they are. This is who I am."



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