My son thinks I read too much.
“Why do you read all the time?”
“Why do you have so many books?”
“I want to write books, not read them.”
I consider it the great failure of my life so far that I have not been able to make a reader of my son. I thought I was doing all the right things. I read to him from the day he was born. His first word was “dog,” said as he pointed to a picture of a dog in a book. (Yes, that would be the only child who skipped over “mama” and “dada” and went straight to “dog.”) I’ve modeled the behavior (maybe too much). His dad reads.
Anyway, my son isn’t the point. I’m actually trying to put into words why I love to read so much. According to my mom, I taught myself to read when I was 3 or so, using a puzzle (that I still remember) with verbs and pictures, and a series of books/records about phonics.
When I was in grade school, we lived in the country. Once a week, we’d get a trip into the “big city” (Danville, Ill.) to go to the library. I remember taking piles of books stacked so high that I couldn’t see over them—had to look around them. I also pillaged my parents’ bookshelves when I ran out of my own reading material; I learned the facts of life from a parenting manual (and then made my mother uncomfortable by knowing just the right questions to ask to get her to independently verify the information). I read Black Like Me, Nectar in a Sieve, and The Family Physician before I hit teen age. (The latter title just about made a hypochondriac of me; I had every symptom of every terminal disease.) At some time during grade school, I learned that Reading Makes You Smart. I realized that some of the stuff I picked up in books could come in handy later on. I realized that already knowing a lot of the material I had to learn in school would get me good grades.
Once I got into high school, I learned my second lesson: Reading Can Be a Puzzle. I’ll never forget reading Being There for a freshman English class and figuring out that it somehow tied in with the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes. Ever since, I’ve been hooked on prying out the non-obvious. Puzzle books like The Da Vinci Code and The Eight make me especially happy.
When I hit my twenties, I learned that Reading Can Make You Rich. OK, not rich. But it can keep you alive. My love of books led me to my library career, which has supported me and my family for almost thirty years. Not to mention Jeopardy! which added another hundred grand or so over a few years (it goes without saying that every answer I knew on J! I had read somewhere or other).
In my thirties, I learned that Reading Can Substitute for Food. Not completely (those who know me know that I haven’t read enough yet, but I’m trying to get there). Whenever I love a book so much, more than I can describe, I say that it’s like ice cream. And that’s as close as I can get to that feeling of sweet, cool, delicious, happiness that I feel when I’m reading. I try to slow down and speak each word in my mind, just to postpone that moment when I have to take another bite (turn the page) and make it last just a little longer.
Now, hate to admit it, I’m in my forties. In my forties I’ve learned that Books Can Make You Think. I found a discipline that I love and that I love to read about (rhetoric). I’m learning how to “converse” with authors in my own writing. I’m learning that I might actually have an idea or two worth sharing. And I’m glad the books I’ve been reading all these years have shown me how to go about doing that.
Of course, I still haven’t answered the question of why I read. I don’t think I ever really could.