“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”― Anne Lamott
I was lucky. I discovered books at an early age. In some respects, they saved my life.
After a tumultuous day or evening in our cramped home—Mom screaming, throwing plates or silverware, Dad drunkenly shooting an arrow through the window over the sink, chunks of glass shooting across the counter and smaller splinters flinging through the air—I’d get up after midnight, go to the bathroom downstairs, sit between the toilet and the sink, over the heat grate, toilet paper roll behind my neck like a headrest, and I’d read.
I know it seems odd, but in that rank, urine-smelling bathroom, with a dirty shower curtain eerily drawn closed, it was my safe place.
Heat meant security for me back then because we were a poor family, and to save on bills, our thermostat was always set at 58, or lower. Even in winter. Especially in winter.
I have vivid memories of being a young boy, crouched between that nook in the bathroom, infrequent jets of heat blowing up between my legs, on my chest and face, as I read Gulliver’s Travels. I was maybe nine. (The turning point in my life—when I realized ours was not a normal family, and that danger lurked everywhere—was age nine, so the most intense moments of my childhood are always linked to that time period.)
Jonathan Swift’s book transported me, took me to another land—Lilliput. Though it was fantastical, I could easily relate to the little people, the Lilliputians, as much as I could to Gulliver. Each felt threatened in some respect, and each in turn became paranoid, reactive, creative, and diligent in the ways they fought for their survival.
Though it was a concocted and somewhat ludicrous story, I was completely immersed. I was those characters. I was still nine, but in that story, I could be brave and show agency. I had choices and strengths I never realized, and well, the ending didn’t have to be awful and scary if I didn’t want it to be.
The only thing I can compare reading that book to is falling in love. I felt giddy and unmoored, but in a good way. Dopamine rippled through my scrawny limbs.
Or perhaps it was more like seeing a naked woman for the first time—the shock, curiosity, and arousal all hurtling together, something extraordinary right there within reach.
In a very short time, I came to think of books as gifts, precious ones, even if I didn’t own the book and needed to return it to the library. It was startling to turn back the cover and see what magic would unfold because in books, anything could happen.
After Gulliver’s Travels, I was smitten with stories and books and characters and language and art. Books became my great escape. My other safe place.
Reading made me want to read even more. It made me want to write stories of my own, tap my imagination and see what might seep out.
In the years that followed, I read voraciously. It almost didn’t matter what the book was about. As I started to write, I slowed down, more or less studying how an author crafted a scene or sentence, how they made tension pop, how their dialogue sounded life-like but quirky. It’s been a journey I’m very grateful for.
Each year I set a goal to read 100 books or more. It’s a big stretch and I maybe hit that number every other year. Starting 2020, I was flying and had read 27 books by February 27th, my Dad’s birthday, a memorable coincidence. Since then, I’ve inched up to 28. In the last five months the only book I’ve read is a friend’s manuscript that he wanted me to blurb. Two months to read 27 books, five whole months to read a single one…
The pandemic is affecting everyone differently. To be honest, it’s pretty much been kicking my ass, toying with my temperament and mental health. I have anxiety issues I’ve not ever experienced before whereby I think something horrible is going to happen even when there is no prompt or evidence to support the feeling. I get sad easier. It’s hard to concentrate. It’s a challenge being hopeful.
It’s also easy to use the pandemic as an excuse for slacking, for lounging too much, eating too much, drinking too much, forming bad habits. I know that well, because I’ve done my fair share of it.
Time seems twisted now, like an Escher drawing, or warped like a Dali panting. In the first part of May, one of my best friend’s sent me a note wishing me happy birthday, and I actually thought, Wow, it’s my birthday and I forgot. I literally checked the date. Nope. My birthday wasn’t for another month and a half.
So now when we forget something, or what day it is, our family says, “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
During these bizarre times, it’s easy to over-think or over-worry. I worry about my friends who are struggling. I worry about our divided country. I get confused and angry with people who, for some reason, won’t wear a fucking mask, and will even assault the person who asks them to.
And so, I haven’t been reading, which is one of the things that brings me the most joy. It’s a bit like when you have depression and you know all the things you should do to curb it, but you do the opposite. I know that reading enriches and fulfills me, that it often instills a sense of wonder. And still I’ve had no desire to read, which only makes me feel more pathetic and miserable.
In my office, I am almost entirely surrounded by books. I’m not kidding. Downstairs there are even more book shelves, filled to the brim. If I was incarcerated for life and was able to take all the books I’ve bought but not read with me to prison, I’d still not be able to finish all of them. I’m a book junkie. I love the smell of the paper, the feel of the ink, just holding one in my hands. I like supporting local book stores. I love literature. I love poetry, or anything that makes my heart jump a little or a lot.
And yet, as I said, I’m not reading.
I’ve also gone off social media. A fragile sort like me can easily be spun out by posts that are vehement or polarizing.
But I miss books. I miss their music and stories and magic, the way they can make you experience new things, or re-experience something you’ve taken for granted.
So today is the day. I’m going to try shrug off this awful malaise I’ve been living in. I’m jumping back on social media. I want to read what my writer friends have published and created. I’m going to read. I’m going to grab a book and sink my eyes into a story and I’m going to be grateful again. I’m going to take my life back, and make it better.