Friday, 5 March 2010

When you read a book as a child, it becomes a part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does.

Jennie I don't remember the first book I ever read. Hell, I can barely remember the LAST book I read. And yet, if I have my choice of free-time time-wasters, I'm always going to choose books. I spent most of my childhood with (a dreamy far-off look and) my nose stuck in a book, when I wasn't busy watching Fraggle Rock or mainlining Disney movies.

I don't remember learning to read, but I do remember the feeling that came with it. That heady power, like I was being let in on some great, cosmic secret. And the books! They're everywhere! You can go to the library and they'll GIVE YOU THEM FOR FREE! There's something special about opening an unread book. Countless possibilities lie before you, anything could happen, and you never have to leave the comfort of your sofa, which is good for anyone as hermit-like as I am. I've time-traveled, space-traveled, and hippogriff-traveled all over this world and others, and not once have I had to change out of my pajamas.

It's a strange thing, that someone hundreds of miles or hundreds of years away can put words on a page for so many others to read, and those words can conjure up pure magic. I sometimes wonder why anyone reads. (Well, more accurately, I wonder why people DON'T READ). But, really, why does anyone read? I would argue that it's for the same reason anyone writes -- to escape, to understand, to break down the answers to life, the universe, and everything into smaller, easier to swallow pieces, much more fit for human consumption than those big unanswerable questions. Reading is learning, I think, and if that's the case, I've been studying my entire life for an exam that may not even exist.

That's not to say these reading lessons haven't been beneficial. I learned about the power of believing from The Polar Express and that old stories could be made new again from The True Story of The Three Little Pigs. I learned that living in a chocolate factory would be freaking awesome (something I'd always suspected) and that Ramona Quimby and my little sister might be the same person. I learned that magic and Muggles were real and that I'd found my compatriots in Jo March and Elizabeth Bennet. A Wrinkle in Time taught me that a book can make your heart stop with wonder, and break it just as easily. Books have done my heart more damage than any boy ever did. I cried buckets along with the March family when Beth died, Bridge to Terabithia stayed with me for days, I cried (in class!) when I finished The Giver, and when I read The Diary of Anne Frank for the first time, my heart just burst right open and I don't think it ever fully healed.

Books have been teaching me all my life, without me even noticing. The most important lesson I ever learned about writing was thanks to books, and I didn't even know it until I was 19. I learned it during a conference with one of my professors, a professor I very much admired and wanted to impress. We were talking about a paper I'd written for class, a piece of creative non-fiction about swimming with stingrays, the first piece I'd ever written for this class. I was just a freshman, all sweaty palms and nervous laughter while he poured over my paper. I tapped my index finger on my leg until he finally, FINALLY, looked up.

"You read a lot," he said, and I nodded. "That's how you become a good writer. Keep reading."

I was giddy at the thought of him thinking I was a good writer, or that I at least COULD be a good writer, and all because of books. I was thrilled to discover, as I'd suspected all along, that the exam really did exist, and best of all, I'd passed.

Still. I'm pretty sure that was only the midterm, so I'm still studying for the final.

19 comments:

Heather Anne said...

This is my favorite thing you've ever written. It's perfect, perfect, perfect, and I adore it (and you).

Also: think about how impressed that professor would have been if you'd let him read Evil Summer!

Joe G. said...

You like to read? I was not aware of that. Good to know. I'll file that away.

Also, what Heather said.

Jennie said...

Aww, thanks, guys.

H!A!, I should have showed him The Evil Summer! Although, I think he might have said something completely different after reading that. Hee.

Joe, I do enjoy a good book every now and then.

kat said...

ditto heather anne too!

man, i love picking up an unread book. that really is the best feeling, isn't it?

Jennie said...

For real, it's my favorite thing. Especially if it's a book I've been wanting to read for a while.

Heather Anne said...

You guys, I really do think unread books have magic powers. I really, really do.

Never That Easy said...

H!A! is 100% correct - this is perfect. It's a nice feeling, knowing other people understand that books are the best things ever. And this? "Books have done my heart more damage than any boy ever did" could not be any truer. (I'm looking at you, Mary Ingalls!)

eclectic said...

Exactly!! Books ARE magic. That's why I'm reading The Sorcerer's Stone to Carter every day for a few minutes before he heads off to school. Y'know, school...where he has to deal with Dudleys and other Muggles. *sigh* If only I could send him off to books instead.

linster said...

What a gorgeous post. This totally made my week.
And yes, unread books are magic. That's why I have so many. I think twice-read books are magic, too. They seem to glow on the shelf.

Jennie said...

I love rereading books! There are a few that I will read about once a year.

You can call me, 'Sir' said...

This really is lovely. And true. It's why I read The House at Pooh Corner at least once a year. A. A. Milne always manages to say a lot using an economy of words. Also, I try to transform some of Pooh's take on life into my own, which is incredibly difficult, but I think genuinely worth trying.

Linda said...

Hmmm, wonder where you might have gotten that reading thing from Jen? While reading this article, I realized how much I missed your writing. It brings back memories we old people sometimes forget or can experience new ones through your writing. I know the next months are going to be really busy for you but you need to keep up with this, YOU ARE SO DARN GOOD!

Ashley said...

I love this: "Reading is learning, I think, and if that's the case, I've been studying my entire life for an exam that may not even exist."

And I feel sorry for people who are stupid and don't read (or are they stupid BECAUSE they don't read? I think so).

Jennie said...

Sir, Pooh understands that you should overindulge on the good things in life. I am totally down with that.

Mom, alright, alright, I'll write more. Nag, nag, nag. Just kidding, love you!

Ashley, did you hear that? That was my mind blowing. I seriously don't understand people who don't read. I had this friend who never read any books -- only magazines, and I never understood it.

Julie G. said...

I notice that this "friend" is in the past tense. You're so smart.

寥落指漲 said...

pleasure to find such a good artical! please keep update!! ........................................

mysterygirl! said...

Yes, this was really, really good. I do think that books are magic.

Justin said...

Late to the party, but this is so in my wheelhouse.

Bridge to Terabithia was the first book to make me cry, followed almost immediately by Where the Red Fern Grows and Island of the Blue Dolphins.

Great post - great tribute to books.

(GSR)

Jennie said...

Why are there so many depressing books for kids? I was trying to remember the name of this book a teacher read out loud to us in 5th grade and I just can't think of it. All I remember is, this kid is in a sled race, and his dog is pulling his sled and they're really close to the finish line, about to win, and the dog just dies! It was traumatic.