Modified photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz.
From that first admission of “I’m a reader now,” comes a lifetime of putting yourself in another’s shoes and thinking more deeply about lives unlike your own. “I’m a reader now,” means that soon your bookshelves will fill up and overflow. “I’m a reader now,” means spending hours in the bookstore narrowing down your pile from 100 books to the one you can’t leave the store without.
When does it happen? How does it happen? Is there a certain type of experience you need to have, like crying when you try on the perfect wedding dress? How do you know that you are now a reader?
This morning, I read Sam Asks: What Does It Mean to “Become” a Reader? which prompted a nostalgic journey back to the first time I started reading books voraciously. I’ve been reading a lot lately, ever since The Hunger Games series surprisingly sparked a fire in me about four months ago. Since then, it’s been non-stop dystopian novels with strong female characters. Though I just bit into my first Agatha Christie book recently, which I’m very excited about.
The first time I consciously forayed into the world of books — excluding my fascination with books and stories as a child — happened when I was around 10 years old. A friend of mine had given me a young adult mystery/horror story for my birthday, the name of which I absolutely can’t remember, and I promptly placed it on my shelf. At the time, I had recently redecorated my room, placing my bed in my closet so it was an alcove of sorts. One night, I picked up this book out of the blue and was transfixed. I remember lying there, curled up in my cozy nook, turning page after page to find out what happened.
It was as if I’d found a hidden room in my mind, filled will all sorts of toys and magical things, a place I would never, ever want to leave. So I tried my hardest to make sure I didn’t. Not one to challenge a good thing, I found a horror series, Spookesville, that I absolutely adored. I went through those books as if they were keeping me alive — I got to a point where I could finish one book in less than an hour, so I started going through more than one per day.
I always laugh when I think back to the conversation I had with my mother when she was in Borders on her cell phone, the good old 1990’s type. Having finished all of my Spookesville books, I was desperate for another. Problem was, I had read through the entire series. On the phone, my mom and I sounded frantic. “But there are no more! Can’t you just stop reading?” Her last question is one she loves to talk about, joking, “Who asks their kid to stop reading?”
The comfort, for me, came in the company that books provided. A few years later, after reading Gone With The Wind, I felt disoriented, orphaned by the characters that I had spent so much time with over the past few months. What would they do with their lives? What happened next? Were they happy? Over time, I grew to know and care for these characters. Despite the one-sidedness of the relationship, it wasn’t dissimilar to getting to know a friend. I learned the details of each character’s history, sat with them as they struggled, watched them grow, and felt proud as they overcame. In the comfort of my room, in my bed, I got to know so many people and so many worlds — more interesting than anything else I had ever known, in fact.
More than that, I grew from reading books. I never found nearly so much pleasure in anything else as I did in highlighting words I didn’t know so I could look them up in the dictionary later. Books, by nature, challenge you. If you don’t understand a line or sentence, you have to re-read, mull it over, and let it sit with you until the full meaning sinks in. There’s no way to cheat; the writer simply plants a seed and it may or may not sprout within you.
Being a reader may have gotten me playfully teased, in school and on the job, but it also acted as a commonality between people, a branch extended. In an office setting, the readers side-eye each other during lunch breaks to see who else has a book in one hand and a sandwich in another. Even now, at work, I have so many colleagues whose passion for books makes me giddy as they talk, or chat, or blog about what they’re reading.
For such a solitary activity, being a reader makes me feel like part of a special group of people who know and understand the power of words. And I love it.
Interesting side-note: Christopher Pike, the author behind Spookesville, also wrote one of my favorite books ever, The Starlight Crystal. As a kid, I loved the story and the idea of someone traveling to the end of the universe, all while struggling to comprehend and maintain a relationship with their “soul mate.” Looking back, I realize the story was very much a look into Buddhist philosophy, ranging from the concept of the eightfold path to non-attachment. It’s still one of my favorites.