The day I first climbed into the redbud tree in front of our house on Tita Street, apple in pocket, “Little Women” clutched in my teeth, I learned about the power of escape and reading. How could it be possible that the March family allowed me to spy on them? I peered through the curtains, watching Marmee with her girls, listening to Beth play the piano while Amy fiddled with her blonde curls. Privy to their private thoughts, quirks and moods, I wondered what kind of sorcerer Louisa May Alcott might be. Although I initially identified with Meg, she of the beautiful hands and domestic aspirations, I so badly yearned to be Jo. To grow up to be described as fiery, strong-willed, independent; to be known as a lover of adventure, literature, and writing; all of this was at my fingertips? How? The cars passing below, the sounds of my brothers playing ball, my mother calling me to some chore…everything evaporated as I slipped into Civil War-era New England. I soon learned there were other books! Jo’s school for Little Men? Anne with the carrot-colored pigtails at Green Gables? Mary and Colin discovering adventures in their Secret Gardens? Had all this been happening while I learned how to decode alphabets, phonics and context clues?
Ever since I closed the covers on that first book when I was 7 or 8, I have identified as an unapologetic bilbliophile. Escape routes exist inside the pages of anyone else’s story, real or fiction. No need to pack, lug heavy baggage about or hassle with lost tickets, ticket sellers and ticket takers. The anticipation of opening a book is akin to the anticipation of climbing into trains, planes and automobiles for trips. Departure time is delayed only by the ever-present, annoying pull of personal duties. My father used to tease me about burning food on the stove because my nose was stuck in a book. He could see me standing in our Tita Street kitchen, but, in truth, I was in a million any-other-places. Burning toast had no power to disrupt my happy wanderings. Daddy’s teasing words became my badge of honor.
Learning to read is a passport that lacks an expiration date. One soon discovers that books are hoarders, concealing invisible worlds, sharing their treasures only with those persistent enough to break their codes. Yesterday, you opened a book’s cover, stared at illegible symbols, black squiggles on white paper. Today, the hieroglyphics are endowed with the power to amuse, anger or inspire. Thoughts from others permit us to unapologetically revel in time-and-place transport.
There is a paradoxical nature to this craving to be alone with a good book. One finds oneself surrounded by charming and vexing characters of all sorts; yet, you’ve discovered them in tandem with millions of other bibliophiles. You’d not give so much as a sideways glance to any one of these other readers until they grab you and excitedly ask: “Have you also read…?”
As Marcel Proust noted, reading is a idiosyncratic form of communication. We read alone, in the shadow of the writer. This mental give-and-take can only be accomplished in solitude:
Reading, unlike conversation, consists for each of us in receiving the communication of another thought while remaining alone, or in other words, while continuing to bring into play the mental powers we have in solitude and which conversation immediately puts to flight; while remaining open to inspiration, the soul still hard at its fruitful labours upon itself.
What book was your first? Which books led you to understand yourself? Which stories led you to understand that the place you called home could have as many faces as the spines staring out at you from your bookshelf? Which narratives offered you sanctuary? Which inspired or goaded you into taking action? Which placed you in a roller-coaster car, plummeting you downward to exhaustive grief or skyward to infinite happiness? Which caused fear to clutch so meanly that you dared not move, lest it find you? I await your comments.
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential,
like a musical score or seed.
It exists fully only in the act of being read;
and its real home is inside the head of the reader,
where the symphony resounds,
the seed germinates.
A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another.
– Rebecca Solnit