“She loves books!” my mother called out to my aunt as a one-year-old me tore open a Christmas gift. As I think back to watching old home videos, that moment is still etched in my mind. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved the sight, feel, and experience of a book.
Growing up, my love of reading was either praised by family and neighbours who assured me that I would grow up to be “smart,” or it was discouraged by teachers who worried that my obsession with reading and wanting to be alone so often would make me a social outcast. For the most part, I discarded everyone’s opinion – good or bad – and just focused on one simple thing: I loved reading.
Reading has allowed me to better understand myself. When I’m immersed in a fictional world where characters starkly opposite of myself espouse views that I cannot share, I find myself having an immediate reaction. I begin to think of their perspectives, or the perspectives of the author, and I reflect back on my own values and beliefs. Similarly, when I come across a sentence or a character that reminds me of myself, I often feel validated and understood. Much like Roald Dahl wrote in Matilda, books have the power to provide a “…a comforting message: you are not alone.” And that’s so often how I feel when I read – that I am not alone.
On that note, books have helped to strengthen community for me. When I was in high school, I joined the White Pine Readers Club. Were we cool? Nope. Did I care? Also, nope! I just enjoyed meeting other people who had spent time soaking in the same words that I did and being able to discuss and debate topics with them afterwards was actually really fun. This year, with the global pandemic raging, I joined two virtual book clubs, and I can proudly assert that the community building component to reading has only grown stronger in adulthood. It’s been a wonderful experience to meet people I may never have met and get to bond with them over a good (or not so good) book.
Interestingly, reading has also allowed me to enjoy solitude. As a more introverted soul, I could never find pleasure in loud and crowded clubs, or in parties with too many strangers floating around. Curled up like a cat on the edge of a bed, bench, or chair has always been enough for me and if I’m in the presence of a good book, I cannot begin to explain the joy I find from the sheer quiet of it all.
When I read non-fiction books – and some fiction – I also find myself being moved by very particular quotes, walking away with life lessons. For instance, Randy Pausch taught me in the Last Lecture that “…brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” Khaled Hosseini taught me in The Kite Runner that there is so much beauty in the simple statement, “for you, a thousand times over.” When speaking of both life and death, Kurt Vonnegut reminded of this same sentiment in Slaughterhouse-Five, “everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.” And Mitch Albom taught me in Tuesdays with Morrie, “if you hold back on the emotions… you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails.”
If I’m being honest, I also sometimes just get genuinely excited to see authors be creative with their storytelling. For instance, when Markus Zusak decided that death should be the narrator for The Book Thief, I was shook. I was instantly hooked in and impressed by Death’s beautiful observation that the only thing scarier than dying was what human beings did to each other while living. And I was equally moved when Holden Caufield in the Catcher in the Rye sadly realized that he could never protect his little sister from all the harm in the world – not even the little things like seeing obscene graffiti sprayed on the walls of her elementary school, “if you had a million years to do it in, you couldn’t rub out even half the “F–k you” signs in the world.” How beautiful a moment was that? And how creative for J.D. Salinger to use Holden – of all characters to express that? He spent 100+ pages walking around New York City complaining, lying, seeking out prostitutes, and hating the world – but he could never hate his sister, Phoebe. He just wanted her to grow up in a world where she didn’t have to see “F–k” sprawled across her school.
Reading undoubtedly made me a better writer, as well. I’m pretty sure that Stephen King is a big believer in that – the notion that the best writers become that way because they always have their nose in a book. As someone who began journaling quite young and then transitioned into writing poetry and short stories in my teens, I can certainly attest to how much reading influenced my own abilities. The first time I had something small published in an anthology, I remember going to an award ceremony and knowing that the very things that made my story effective were strategies that I had picked up and tweaked from the authors I loved.
So, all in all, reading is a truly wonderful experience that has been incredibly healing for me throughout the various stages of my life. Even for people who don’t necessarily love reading, I would still encourage them to pick something up. And despite what literature snobs may tell you, I don’t think you need to check off certain boxes to consider yourself a “true reader.” If you don’t like Joyce, Dickins, or Shakespeare, that’s perfectly fine. There’s also no need to go onto “booktube” and try to challenge yourself to read X number of books in a month. Find something that you think will speak to you and brings joy. Then, read it. Maybe ease into things with an audiobook. You do you… And then, rejoice -you’ll be a reader. I hope it brings you peace.