yellowpigs.net

Reading

May 19, 2004

I don't think I have a favorite book, or if I do, I can't think of it. It's hard for me to even come up with a list of favorite books or authors or types of books. But over the years I've had many favorites, far too many to list. These were the books I would re-read over and over again. I seldom read a book only once.

It seems I've been reading ever since I can remember. My godmother says one of the first things my parents asked after I was born was "When will she start reading?" Not walking or talking, but reading. She and my mom had (among other things) worked as reading teachers. Both of my parents were impressive readers, although as I got older it seemed from my book-devouring perspective that they hardly read at all.

No doubt due in part to their insistence that reading was important, I learned to read early. I was reading books before I was four. The first book I read by myself was Let's Go Dear Dragon. I don't remember who the author is, but my parents still have the book, with its colorful pictures and a list of words in the back, words that I had mastered.

My bedroom became my library. It was filled with books, quite literally more than some libraries I've been to. My dad built me bookcase after bookcase, and every wall was covered with books. I got bunk beds in fourth grade. Not long after, the beds were separated and the space below the upper bed was filled with more books. Everyone who walked into my room remarked at the quantity of books. I've sold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books and lost many others to the weather over the years, but my old bedroom is still filled with books. I simply don't have room for them all here.

It would be a lie to say I read them all (some were, after all, encyclopedias), but I read nearly every book in my room. I read most of them half a dozen times. Throughout my childhood, I would stay up late at night reading. It wasn't unusual for me to go through a book a day. I devoured books. They were my nourishment.

Needless to say, reading was never a chore for me, the way it was for some of my friends. When we were assigned books for school, I'd dive in and finish the book quickly. I couldn't understand why so many people didn't like reading, why it was a bit odd that I did.

For me, reading was pleasure. It was an escape. It was an entrance to a world full of people who I could pretend were my friends, whom I could learn from. I would make up sequels and missing chapters to books I read, my own further stories about the characters. Sometimes I'd write them. I would think about my reactions to a book. I would, at times, wish to know or be like the people I read about. At other times, I was glad to be me. My best friends were, or were in, the books I read.

I was never much for libraries. There weren't any good ones where I lived, and I prefered to own my books so I could read them whenever I wanted. I probably went to the bookstore weekly or every other week. It was a small bookstore, and everyone at the bookstore knew me, at least by face and reputation. I read nearly every children's series I could, so every month I would have something new to read. Later, when my mother took frequent business trips, my book list would accompany her. She would head to the bookstores and return with a stack of new books for me and a newspaper for my dad.

In the summers when I was in elementary school (or "lower school" as my school called it), we would visit my grandparents in New York. There was a library nearby, and I would stock up on books to read. I spent my summers reading. New York was also, as far as I was concerned, the land of big bookstores, huge bookstores where I could be lost for hours and hours browsing, reading the backs of every book on the shelves and selecting those I might want to read. Into the baskets (for they seldom fit in just one) they would go. I bought so many books that I could usually read a few chapters while waiting for the somewhat amazed bookstore employee to ring them up. Some of the books we'd ship home. They would be my reading material for the year. The rest were the ones I couldn't wait to read. I'd finish those in the next few days.

I was always with a book. I'd hate to put books down, and would read them in one sitting. (I think the first book I didn't read in its entirety in a 24 hour period was Gone with the Wind, which I read over Thanksgiving in 4th grade. It was 1000 pages, and I wanted to see if I could read a book that long. I could, but that was a dumb reason to read a book.) So I'd start a book in bed in the morning or at the bookstore or as soon as I got home from school. And then it would be time to eat dinner or go somewhere. The book would come along. In the car, in restaurants, at school, wherever. My parents didn't like my habit of reading through dinner, but there wasn't much they could do to stop me. I think they were just happy they could get my attention long enough to tell me to come to the table.

As I grew up, I did less pleasure reading. I had more homework, more reading for school, I was generally busier, and eventually I was just less lonely. I was also reading more literature and non-fiction, that is, books which required more thinking and slower-paced reading. I say I read less, but I still read tons. I don't think I read less than a book a week for pleasure until college.

In eighth grade I had the first literature class that I truly enjoyed. I felt like we were reading books with depth. They had themes and symbolism and metaphors and analogies. Book were complex mysteries to solve. There was always more meaning hidden below the surface, and all I had to do was re-read the same book to find something new to analyze. Books were no longer solitary. I could read commentary about the books I was reading, and in high school I could discuss books with my classmates, or at least with my teachers.

Along with my love of books, I developed a love of words. Poetry, word play, and writing were among my interests. I loved the sounds of poetry and the effect they could have independently of their meaning. I loved finding exactly the right words to capture an image or a feeling. I enjoyed word games and puns and all of that "low brow" humor (which was, I was quick to note, good enough for Shakespeare).

I enjoyed writing. I kept numerous journals, and they were especially detailed from fourth to sixth grade. I did writing exercises and wrote essays, newspaper articles, poems, short stories, and even a few not-so-short stories. I've saved just about everything I've written, and looking back, some of it is quite good. I always got high grades and compliments on anything I wrote for school. I wrote (and enjoyed writing) several 30+ page research papers in high school, which was more than a bit ambitious. I thought about publishing, even going so far as to buy books of publishers' addresses, I but never worked up the nerve to submit any of my writing anywhere except local literary magazines (which happily accepted my writing).

I took, and greatly enjoyed, a handful of literature classes in college. But despite my passion for literature and writing, it wasn't my major. Instead, I majored in math, one of my other lifelong interests. When questioned about my diverse academic interests, I'd point to Lewis Carroll who, while best known for Alice in Wonderland, was also a mathematician and logician. In fact, my senior thesis combined my interests in something of a tribute to Lewis Carroll: a children's story containing mathematics, titled Alice in Mathland.

I've been reading for twenty years now, and I still love books, although they are no longer my world in the way they once were. Lately I've been reading as much non-fiction as fiction, in part because I've been in graduate school (in philosophy) for the last three years, and in part because there's just so much I want to learn. I read philosophy, math history, science, and computer science. I can also be spotted reading science fiction, re-reading books from high school and college, reading the Harry Potter books, and reading anything on my computer screen.

After a few years of not doing much writing (excluding dozens of papers for school, that is), I'm back to keeping a journal. I write something every day. Most of it is just for myself, but maybe one day I'll think of something to write that I think is worth sharing. And then I'll publish it. Someone will pick up my book, smell that new book smell, open the spine, and get absorbed in its pages. I hope that they will learn, think, and most importantly, enjoy.