“In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself.” –Anna Quindlen, author, columnist
I am sitting on a moss green velour couch in the furniture section of a Good Will thrift store, a stack of books next to me. During a recent bout with the nasty flu that’s going around, I read myself dry—reading the last word of the last unread novel I had on my bookshelf.
I am hungry for a new story. Sitting in my self-made reading room I am pursuing the pages of The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova, “a mystery in the midst of French Impressionism,” the back cover tells me. A stack of books awaits my scrutiny as I choose my next stock of reading material.
In the same way one cannot go without food for long, I cannot be without a stack of unread books, their words pregnant with new possibility. Since I was a child books have been my teachers, my friends, my comfort, my joy . . . sometimes even my survival.
It is why when I came down with the dreaded flu last week, the main blessing I could identify is that I had a brand new hardback to crack, The Light We Could Not See by Anthony Doerr. My flu received back burner status as I lost myself in the moving story of the book’s intertwining characters; how their destinies are shaped and affected by their passage, though brief, through each other’s lives in France and Germany during World War II.
It deeply affected me. During flu-induced sleepless nights, I found myself contemplating some of the ways my life has been affected by people who have passed through my story offering me important lessons, an unexpected joy, or a sorrow to be borne.
I love stories. It’s why I skipped school in 8th grade to stay in my bed all day long reading Gone with the Wind while pretending to be sick. It’s why I became a reporter and later a therapist. I never tire of hearing people’s stories. And I fear the void I am certain will be impossible to fill with any other book after I have turned the last page on my current read.
Books are not just ways to pass time; they are pathways of discovery into other lives and worlds, which always shine a light on my own path.
With my mother’s death at 8-years-old, I found myself inhabiting a new life where I was alone a lot and un-mothered. I turned to books as one way to learn how to live life. Books in a way became my mothers.
I whiled away the hours reading Bird Girl, Sacagawea by Flora Warren Seymour, and Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, the story of a Swiss girl who is raised by her grandfather after her parents die.
At age 13, with my father remarried, I started Junior High School. School was a crucial escape to me with its books, teachers, and the possibility of friends. I had no idea how to fit in, yet understood that fitting in meant survival. I found a dusty copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie in my father’s den and read it. I made a fool of myself at cheerleader tryouts, but did make a couple of friends–one who is still in my life.
When I was 22, just out of college, and working as a newspaper reporter, I moved into my first apartment. I didn’t know how to cook. So I bought a Good Housekeeping Cookbook, followed its instructions, and cooked my first casserole. The cookbook is still in my kitchen, food-stained pages mostly intact, cover long gone.
And all along the way, novels transported me to distant shores, which held new perspectives and possibilities far away from my own trouble. I remember hiding books within a textbook during class, so attached was I to story. With the narrow lens of my own difficult story in life, Margaret Mitchell showed me the universal theme of trials and triumphs in all humankind. Jane Eyre gave me hope.
“Reading makes immigrants of us all,” wrote author Hazel Rochman, “it takes us away from home, but most important, it finds homes for us everywhere.”
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart is one of my favorite books. It’s the only book that upon finishing the last of its 771 pages, I immediately turned back to the first page and started reading it again. Its main character, Theo, is a young lad who survives a bombing in a New York art museum, and then bravely makes his way through life motherless. He was so brave, so real, so vulnerable, and in the end so courageous and humble. This book that inhabits the art world is a book about life. It documents the unfolding of Theo, a dear and complicated character from childhood to adulthood, while engaging the reader in a thrilling suspense that is not resolved until the end of the hefty book (771 pages of pure bliss!).
It was so real I felt like I knew Theo, that we had a friendship. But to me it is also a book about writing and reading. Tartt writes in its pages, “Whatever teaches us to talk to ourselves is important: whatever teaches us to sing ourselves out of our despair . . . we can speak to each other across time. And I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you. That life—whatever else it is, is short. . that maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task is to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it . . . while keeping eyes and hearts open.”
Words like this help me carry on; words like this keep me reading!