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.