In the first place, I want to inspire you the joy of reading, what I have been doing for long time.
When I was first asked “What Reading Means to Me.” My knee-jerk reaction was “What doesn’t reading mean to me?” As the model of a addicted bookaholic and a scholar, I thought of all of our standard platitudes: “Reading is Life.” “Reading is Fundamental.” “There is no such thing as too many books.” I might easily have gone on and on along this vein, until I remembered that, for me, it hadn’t always been that way. Not by a long shot.
My approach to reading as a child was quite different than it is today. I can still remember clearly how scientific my approach was at the ripe old age of ten. “Dad,” I would say, “next time you’re at the library, get me a book for my book report.” I did give him some direction, however. “Remember, it should only be about this big…..it can’t be more than 100 pages…..and please, make sure it has lots of pictures.”
You can only imagine my reaction when he proudly walked in the door once with a copy of The Call of the Wild.
“Dad!” I screamed. “Dad! This is like, huge – OhmyGod – 221 pages??! And, there’s like, practically no pictures. Anywhere! I tooolldd you -”
“Dave,” he responded, only mildly irritated, “it’s Jack London! It’s a classic!”
I stared at him. All I could muster in response was “Daaaaddd!!”
Prior to this crisis, my only memories of going to the library were when we would drive my Grandmother there every Saturday afternoon when we took her on errands, right in between our stops at the bakery and the cobbler shop. I was thankful that my Gramma only read Westerns, since these were shelved in the coolest section of the library.
There was a big overhang above the Westerns section, right underneath the stairs which led up to a balcony, and it was a great place to hide in the shadows and throw things or jump out at people. I definitely loved visiting the library in those days.
My library career began at this same library, just as auspiciously as my reading career. It was Boy Scout Government Day, 1971, and all the young boys in our town were to be elected to political posts throughout the community. Naturally, there was great interest in running for Police Chief, or Fire Chief, or better yet, Principal of your own school, where you could have all manner of fun sitting in the school office and haranguing your friends who were stuck in class while you weren’t.
I quickly read through the lists of positions for election and zeroed in on the one slot for which no one had signed up to run. “Library Director.” That was it. I knew what I was going to go for. I think in my selection essay, I wrote something like “I believe that libraries and books hold the future of mankind, and I would like to dedicate my life to them.” Basically, I wanted the day off from school.
As soon as I found out I had won the election unopposed, I faced only one dilemma. Although the Boy Scouts had efficiently sent me all the paperwork I needed about running the library for a day, no one had actually told me where the library was. Lord knows I hadn’t memorized the route whenever we drove my Grandmother there. In the car, I was always too busy plotting new ways to harass my sister under the balcony stairs. Fortunately, for me and the Boy Scouts, my father came through again.
While I did get through that one Boy Scout Government Day somewhat unscathed, I was amazed to be re-elected to this post the following year, again, unopposed. To make matters worse, the library actually had the nerve to offer me a paid part-time job in the library, shelving books as a student page.
“Daaaddd!” was all I could say. “How do you get to the library again? I gotta go back this year, too.”
Now, I mention these anecdotes for one very important reason, to illustrate that there is hope for all of us. For most of my life, I was what might today be called “Reading Challenged,” and, if not for the persistence of parents and teachers and librarians, I would likely have remained that way. In fact, in my life as a reader, I have discovered a very fundamental paradox.
Even though I do believe everyone is a born reader, I do not believe everyone is born to read. I believe that while most of us possess the ability innately, we need somebody to jump start us, to take our dormant flint and steel and get a spark going. We don’t have to “become” readers. We need to “see” reading as the vital part of life that it is.
To me it is a privilege to open someone up to the world of books, but it can be frustrating since it’s not one of those things you can make happen, and you never really know you’re doing it once you actually do it. There is some reason why I kept going back to that library of my youth, and it wasn’t just to throw things at my sister under the balcony stairs. I was seeing reading in action. I was seeing people choosing to spend some time between the covers of a book.
They weren’t at the movies, although they may have been going later that day. They weren’t watching TV or playing sports at that moment, although they certainly may have been earlier that day. I was seeing people voluntarily bringing books home with them without measuring thickness between their forefinger and their thumb.
My grandmother was not able to move around that easily in her final years, but nothing was going to keep her from her weekly visits to the library. My dad, whom I was convinced knew nothing about anything, had known who had written The Call of the Wild. ‘Nancy Drew’ was not one of my sister’s friends from school, yet my sister kept talking about her. And Dr. Seuss books were not Christmas ornaments that had fallen off of the tree. They had been left there for a reason.
People around me were showing me books. People around me were living with books. People around me were reading books, demonstrating their love of reading without drumming it into my head, and in spite of my efforts to resist, I began to understand why.
Now, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Throughout much of my childhood, I was convinced I did not know how to read. I was a good student, I knew my alphabet and my phonics, and I even managed, in spite of myself, to get my book reports in on time, although I do distinctly remember once deciding to settle for a grade of ‘F’ rather than continue reading My Antonia for even one more day. But what this had to do with that strange concept called “reading,” however, was beyond me. You see, I knew I knew “HOW to Read.” I just didn’t think I was “A READER.”
Thank goodness others taught me otherwise.
My father never stopped bringing home those classics, some of which I actually read. Mrs. Hamilton, my speed reading teacher in high school, kept saying “David, you really are a good reader. You’re just not a very fast reader.” Mrs. Bragdon, the Children’s Librarian, started putting aside books just for me, once it became clear to her that I had indeed figured out how to get to the library. Bedtime stories were the norm, and, thank goodness, there were still plenty of publishers including pictures in their books.
Once I made that voluntary, unassigned decision to open a book and read, just for its own sake, I was hooked. Reading became a hobby, then a passion, then a need. Suddenly, I was saying things like “Oh, I’ve read that,” or, “You know, the book was much better than the movie,” or, perhaps most surprisingly, “Daaaddd! I wanna go to the library!”
In reading, I had discovered a way to make dozens of new friends, without having to actually meet anybody. I became a Hardy Boy, a Happy Hollister, and sometimes even the third Bobsey Twin. I played with Curious George, the Cat in the Hat, and, when desperate, even Madeline, or Amelia Bedelia.
Later in life, I became notorious for giving people books as gifts, and, likewise, I became very easy to shop for. Throughout our house, various doorstops and table leg props and high chair booster seats began disappearing as I began reading them. My mother, whose oft-spoken phrase “I don’t know why you kids don’t like to read!” had developed into something of a mantra, was now wailing and gnashing her teeth. “Would you please stop bringing books into this house!”
Technically, I’m an adult now, but I still feel like a kid with my love of reading. When I read, I feel like I’m bingeing on calorie-free ice cream, and nobody can make me stop. Reading has become a healthy indulgence, a positive form of escape, a chance to be transported, teleported even, without having to leave your chair or have your cells reconstructed. It is virtual reality without the safety goggles.
Reading makes far away places seem close by, and makes nearby places seem far away. Reading showed me why Narnia’s Kingdom was in a closet, and it helped me learn how to calibrate my spark plugs. Reading taught me the importance of things like good nutrition, safe sex, and a Red Sox World Series, and why Rodgers and Hammerstein had to re-write the South Pacific about a dozen times.
Reading has taught me about hatred, and about love, about fellowship and about aloneness. It has helped me to care that Rosa Parks would not give up her seat, it assured me that I wasn’t the only kid who had certain fears, and it continued to prove to me that no one – absolutely no one – could keep me from finding out about something if I really wanted to.
Reading has taught me how to think more than teachers have taught me how to think, but I do credit teachers for showing me the importance of being able to think. And, reading has also taught me there is absolutely no reason why I couldn’t have been one of those people who fought in the Revolution, or who traveled in space, or who ran in the Boston Marathon, or who planted a tree. In short, to paraphrase the popular expression, “Everything I need to know, I learned by reading.”
Well, okay, almost everything.
In his recent memoir titled On Writing, Stephen King refers to reading as the “only proven method of time travel.” I will paraphrase his explanation: “I am writing this sentence on May 5, 1989, and the one thing I know for sure is that you’re listening to me at some other time, in the future…and you think I’m talking to you right now.”
That’s pretty powerful stuff.
The theorist Walter Ong says that reading helps us “develop an interiority,” and that our “human spirit is meant for knowledge…something only reading can give us.” I love words like that, seeing as I work for a college. But I sometimes prefer very basal explanations that only a fellow reader can give.
For example, Jimmy Durante, in his comic song “The Day I Read a Book.” He alliterates wonderful rhymes such as “I couldn’t believe it! Didn’t think I could read it!” And I can only echo his refrain. “I’ll never forget it! The day I read a book!”
In a similar, though less musical vein, I have a cousin who rivals my voracious appetite for books. I remember how shocked I was to discover this, and I asked him why he read so much. His answer was both as simple and as mind-blowing as Mr. Durante’s. “You can get smart for free. It’s awesome.”
I’m somewhat of a fan of the writer Julia Cameron. Her series of books on The Artist’s Way have encouraged hundreds of readers to convince themselves of the importance of nurturing their own creative spirits. My favorite book of hers is titled The Right to Write, and in it she confesses that, when she meets St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, she hopes to share one thing only: that she convinced someone to write. That, she says, will be plenty to be proud of.
As a librarian, I think I’d like to tell St. Peter that I convinced someone to read.
In the end, however, I always seem to end up referencing what is, for me, one of the most fundamental manifestations of American culture: the Broadway Musical, and my own, personal favorite iconoclast, Stephen Sondheim.
When I finally try to boil down to just a few words what reading means to me, what comes to mind, oddly enough, is the title of Mr. Sondheim’s composition “BeingAlive,” from the musical Company. I’d like to share one passage from that song that makes me think not only of love for another human being, but, for some reason, of reading.
Someone to hold you too close
Someone to hurt you too deep
Someone to sit in your chair
And ruin your sleep
And make you aware of being alive.
Someone to need you too much
Someone to know you too well
Someone to pull you up short
And put you through hell
And give you support for being alive.
When I read, I’m reminded of all of my senses and sensations and imaginations. When I read, I’m reminded I have a brain, and a heart, and a soul.