I fell hard for reading the moment I figured out how to do it. My head was in a book pretty much constantly…in the car, walking downstairs, under a backyard tree, in bed with a flashlight, even…to their great annoyance…when I went over to a friends’s house. My concentration was total, the escape from life complete. Once while waiting for a bathtub to fill I was, naturally, reading… only to be abruptly and frighteningly interrupted by pounding on the bathroom door and a chorus of frantic cries. The tub had overflowed, the floor and my feet covered in water , water was pouring into a clothes closet on the first floor…and I hadn’t even noticed…so lost was I in whatever magical world I was temporarily living in.
It made sense that I loved books so much. I was a “good” reader, but more than that…there was so much I wanted to hide from. My family environment was an emotionally difficult one , with more (metaphorically speaking) land mines than Princess Diana ever railed against. It was intense and surprising, a household where a small child could never know whether the next moment would contain laughter ( a highly prized commodity in my home) or actual rage. We lived on a wider spectrum than many families I suspect and while there are , in the security of hindsight, some benefits to that… to a child , well , it was pretty scary. In a book I never knew what was coming next either but I knew I was safe… so books are where I planted my feet, my mind and my heart.
I was an exceedingly odd child: bookish, introverted , anxious and awkward. I not only read books…but also sought self confidence by quoting from them (without attribution). On the compliment I received for the armful of bangles and rhinestone earrings I had surreptitiously appropriated from my mom’s jewelry drawer and was wearing in a seventh grade classroom, “Thank you.” I said quite grandly, “I feel naked without them”. (Thank you Trixie Belden). And whenever I could drop it in, actually with rather impressive (or alarming, depending on your viewpoint) frequency, “My life is just a graveyard of buried hopes.” (Thank you Anne of Green Gables.) I am sure you can imagine how this was received by my middle school peers …pretty much guaranteeing that only a few would actually talk to me.
Changing schools and my hairdo between middle and high school gave me a new lease on adolescent social life. Upper class-men (being clueless to my long established hopelessness) took a shine to me in some amazing stroke of Providence ..leaving my peers to follow suit. I was, miracle of miracles, in with the “in-crowd”. And while I no longer had to read at the lunch table for survival , whenever I could , I read and read and read.
I am probably still very odd but as I no longer have masses of class-mates to eagerly point it out to me, I am likely just not as aware of it. I still struggle in large crowds of people. I still can feel anxious. But I’ve learned to cover my shyness and anxiety with (mostly) adept social ease and I have the great good fortune of wonderfully loving friends and family. Life as an adult is a less treacherous path..
And still , for decades, I read and read and read .
Reading taught me that life can be viewed by a multitude of perspectives, that other viewpoints have validity. It has given me the gift of “being” in other times, other places, other cultures and mindsets. Reading was my first teacher in being human…and it remains one of my very greatest teachers.
But something is shifting. While I still read the paper daily and the New Yorker with frequency, I can now go days without reading a book. My attention is far more easily called away . I don’t know if it is because I am older and this is something that just “happens” with attention span or if my real life is more compelling…or even if because I most frequently these days use an electronic “reader” , making the experience subtly different and somehow less rewarding.
This makes me deeply sad and I wonder if this passion for books will come back to me, I miss what they have always meant to me … and I miss the deep concentration that let a tub overflow…
I wish I could again read and read.