Wednesday, December 8, 2010


As there so often is, there is a meme going around twitter today. This one, tagged #WhyIRead, was quite popular with the bookish crowd I hang out with on that part of the internet. I gave a couple of different answers, but one maybe deserves a longer meditation.

I said, "Because I wouldn't recognize myself if I didn't." I joke, quite often, that if you were to cut me open, what would come out wouldn't be blood, it would be coffee. But really, the thing that flows through my veins is words, stories. I don't actually remember a time before I could read. I have been told that I was one of those verbally precocious children who completely skipped the normal baby babble, and ran headlong into speaking in full sentences, that one night I took The Cat in the Hat from my Dad, and read the whole thing to him. (I'm actually kind of sad that was the end of bedtime stories. I love being read to. Yes, still.)

I always had a book in my hand. I read under the covers or tucked into the closet at night, under the desk in class, and whenever I could get away with it, I stayed in to read instead of going out to recess. At a family reunion, when the rest of the cousins got in trouble for play with Grandpa's pool table, I got in trouble for reading his rare edition of Moby Dick. I was six. I still haven't finished it.

When the worst things happened, even the very worst, I got through them by reading. Two books saved my life after that: Robin McKinley's Deerskin and Andrew Greeley's Lord of the Dance. There's a great quote from G.K. Chesterton, "Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten." Books are where I learned to beat the dragons, and when I couldn't, how to climb on their backs, and fly.

I know better who I am when I'm reading. One of my friends mentioned that reading makes him clearer in his head, and I think that's a good way to describe the sensation. I see the shapes of my world more truly, and feel more present, more real. I am creature made up of bone and skin and stories, and I read to know who I am, and who I'm going to be.


  1. I know exactly what you mean! Words were my only friend for a long time when I was a child; we lived in a very isolated town with very few children. Books and stories brought me the entire world.

    There was even a weird period of about two years where I actually dreamed in text! Dreams would be bright colorful films and then suddenly turn into pages in a book--which I could read!

  2. I am very jealous of your dreaming in text. What you describe there sounds amazing.

    Also, I sort of wonder what percentage of writers would describe themselves as "I was the kid in the back of the class who read all the time." I have a feeling it would be a high one.

  3. Fond memories! I remember a time in my life when I thought I could read, but actually couldn't. I had memorized my favorite books (stuff like "Frederick"), and was able to "read them out loud", i.e. recite them from memory while turning the pages. I remember being frustrated when my parents caught my trick, because I couldn't understand: If this wasn't reading, then what was?

    But soon after, I finally figured it out, because my mother taught me how to sound out letters and put the sounds together. I distinctly remember that sense of "Eureka!" when I found out that the strings of symbols found in books sounded like...words.

    Of course, this was the beginning of the "reading under the blanket" era. I always found my parents' "lights out" policy completely hypocritical. If school work was good, why was reading in bed all night bad? Tsk. (Now I think they forced me to turn off the light in order to make reading even more attractive -- forbidden fruit, etc. Alternatively, it might have been an attempt at making the books "last" a little longer.)

  4. "If school work was good, why was reading in bed all night bad?" One of the world's great unanswerable questions.