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.