Other people talked about being voracious readers, devouring two or three books a week, and I sniffed through my judgmental nose and thought, “That’s easy to do when you’re not reading anything of substance.” I, on the other hand, was working my way through the modern literary canon. I made a checklist of Pulitzer prizewinners. I didn’t devour my books. I read slowly and savored the offerings of the literary elite.
I admit it, I was horrible.
I wasn’t always that way. When I was a child, I read everything from Laura Ingalls Wilder and Judy Blume to Piers Anthony and C.S. Lewis. I read the entire Trixie Belden series and all the Babysitters Club books. I read Gone With the Wind in fifth grade. In junior high, I hid in the 800s section of the library to read Waiting for Godot and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I read everything Kurt Vonnegut wrote, and every one of Noel Streatfeild’s Shoes books too. I read Choose Your Own Adventure and Encyclopedia Brown and also Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Until I got to college, I simply loved reading, and I didn’t differentiate between what was trash and what was worthwhile, or what was important and what was fluff.
Then, I started working on my English degree. I read (okay, skimmed) James Joyce’s Ulysses and all the works of Toni Morrison. I took an in-depth class on Hemingway, who I’d always loved, and I learned to love him less. I analyzed T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” and Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. I fell in love a little with Haruki Murakami.
(But the book that made me show up late for my job at the library, eyes puffy and red-rimmed, was The Bridges of Madison County.)
All that education translated into an understanding of language and character and theme that I can’t imagine being without. It also made me forget how to love a book for doing what a book does best.
A recent study on the effect of reading on the brain found that reading a book isn’t just an exercise in analyzing and interpreting language. It literally adds to our life experience.
“We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”
The brain interprets events we’ve read similarly to events we’ve lived. In a very real sense, reading transports us into a different life. It exercises our ability to empathize and allows us to extend our experience far beyond what could otherwise be accomplished in a single lifetime.
Any avid reader probably could have predicted that. That’s why we love reading.
And the reason I love beautiful language is I love reading. The reason I love a tightly-told story is I love reading. The reason I love clever wordplay and brilliantly-expressed themes and prescient social commentary is I love reading.
It’s also the reason I love saucy comebacks. And not knowing whodunnit until the last chapter. And that delicious first kiss. And sword battles. And fistfights. And bar brawls. And a different first kiss. Long trips through unknown territories. Long trips through unknown galaxies. Dystopian futures. Utopian futures. The heightened senses of a werewolf. The clomp of horses’ hooves on cobblestone streets. Or sage-strewn desert. The first glimpse of a magnificent steam-powered contraption. The unsubtle horror of a craving for brains.
I want to experience all of it.
I’m not a literary snob anymore.