When I was a kid, I lived in books. I don't just mean that I was constantly reading, that I always had a book in my bag for the car, that I perfected the art of reading under the desk during the boring parts of class without alerting the teacher, that I read every night by flashlight in bed, evading the notice of my parents with varying degrees of success.
I mean that I lived in books. When I found favorites, I'd reread them again and again. I'd make my stuffed animals or my dolls reenact my favorite scenes. I'd make my friends reenact my favorite scenes with me - we used to play Birnam Wood at recess. (NB to future nerds: do not tell Sister Nathalie that the convent is Dunsinane when she asks what you're doing carrying around sticks. It won't go well.) I'd put myself in those scenes - I was always my favorite character, and I'd retell the story.
If I had known, at that age, what fan fiction was, I probably would have written it. Not to change the story or make sure that everything worked out okay for my favorite ships, but to have my favorite bits, those moments of reading that exploded my heart, on a constant repeating loop. To make them last forever. To live in the story.
I think about reading like that, and those are the books that made me. Sacred Texts. Books like the Prydain Chronicles, and the Dark is Rising series (especially The Grey King) and A Wrinkle in Time. I think the last book that I really read like that was Tam Lin. After a while, there was too much else taking up room in my head. I still read voraciously, but I lost the ability to truly immerse myself in a story.
Every so often, I find books that I know, if I had read them earlier, would have joined that list of Sacred Texts: When You Reach Me, The Last Unicorn, All Our Pretty Songs. There's something about them that speaks to the part of me that makes me who I am, that moment of recognition of a truth that goes beyond what is fact or real to simply be what is.
I didn't read Watership Down when I was younger. I remember seeing the movie, and remember being heartbroken by it, and so when I realized it was a book, too, my reaction was pretty much no. Why break my heart again on purpose? I thought about picking it up a few years ago, when Stories came out, and I realized I shared a table of contents with Richard Adams, but at that point I figured I was too old to really appreciate talking animal stories.
But then one of my friends, whose opinion I trust when it comes to books, raved about Watership Down. And later that week, I came across a good used copy, so I picked it up. Last week I read it, and I wish I had done so before. It was the closest thing to reading with that same sense of wonder that I did when I was younger. I know if I had read it then I would have made my friends play rabbits, and I would have been Hazel. (Though I know, now, for good or ill I'm much more Fiver.) It would have been a book that made me who I was.
Even now, I know I'll go back and reread it. Partially because it's beautiful, but also, for the writerly moments. The way the mythology of the rabbits works. The primroses. For the reminder that the right story is always a gift, no matter when it is read.