One week during the summer I was twelve, I had a crisis.
I ran out of library books.
Sure I rode my bike, went swimming with friends, and listened to music trying to figure out what the lyrics meant but I also indulged in hours of reading every day. Books transported me. My mother would call me to dinner and I’d look up, astonished to find I wasn’t a wolf on the tundra but a girl in shorts lying on the carpet. Or someone would knock on the bathroom door and I’d remember that I was soaking in the tub, not eluding soldiers in a medieval battle.
My parents supported reading, but they had no problem saying “get your nose out of that book and go outside.” They didn’t take us to the library more than two or three times a month, so the stack of books each of us brought home had to last.
When I realized I was bookless, I turned in desperation to a volume my older sister read as a class requirement. It had tiny print and a not-too-inspiring title, The Scarlet Letter. “It’s too hard,” she told me. “It’s a classic.”
I didn’t know “classic” meant it was good for me, like a bitter vitamin tablet. I insisted I was out of other options.
I promptly fell into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words. They were exquisite in a way I’d never experienced, centered on the inner life and all its convolutions, something I already knew well but didn’t have the sophistication to express. I wasn’t aware such books existed. Instead of racing through it, as I did with every other book, I savored it. It felt as if I could run my fingers over the page and feel the texture of shame and longing. When I finished I was newly in love with the idea of classics, so I got books by Charles Dickens out of the library. I worked my way through two of them that summer although they didn’t live up to my great expectations. I thought Dickens droned and was nothing like Hawthorne.
Several years later I had to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. Everyone grumbled when assigned more pages to read. Those piercing insights, when listed in bullet points on the board, didn’t sink into my heart. Lectures and assignments obscured the book’s beauty. I didn’t read it with a cloak thrown over my head or the prick of a rose thorn in my skin. It lay dead, like a victim on the autopsy table.
Then I realized that my love of books had developed entirely outside of the classroom. I’d never really fallen in love with any of the books assigned in school, although the ones our teachers read aloud after recess, a few pages a day or an entire chapter on special days, still stood out in my mind. Reading, for me, was about pleasure. It was more than a habit, it was an integral part of my being. The books I read helped form my outlook and character. I dare say that many of us, if we look back, will find that favorite books from childhood have a surprising link to who we are today.
If I could, I’d reclaim reading for all of us, from earliest childhood on, as pleasure first and foremost. Turning to the written word for information and edification then becomes a pleasure too.