Wednesday, May 26, 2010

How Reading Changed My Life

How Reading Changed My Life is a collection of essays by Anna Quindlen, one of my favorite contemporary writers. I love reading about other people reading, so I jumped at the chance to read this book. I enjoyed all of the essays and seeing similarities between myself and someone I admire. If you enjoy reading about other readers and fell in love with Francie Nolan because she loves the library and makes plans to read through the whole thing alphabetically, this book’s for you. (Quindlen wrote an introduction to a recent edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the wonderful book featuring Francie, which is one of my all-time favorite books and made me like Quindlen all the more.)

This book made me think about my own experience with reading. My first memories are of learning to read (although my very first memory is of me jumping of the counter and splitting my chin on a metal Carebears trash can). I remember realizing that the black marks on the pages meant something, that they were telling my mom what to say. And so since I wanted to be independent even at three, I begged my mom to teach me how to understand them. She thought it would be fun to teach me a little bit of the alphabet, expecting to get to about D and give up for the day, but I learned the entire alphabet that day. And then immediately began putting the new information into practice with Dr. Suess and a few other simple picture books. And I’ve never looked back! (And if you’re a mom reading this and you’re a bit jealous of my mom, don’t worry, she got major payback from my brother. And he still turned out just fine despite learning to read much later and never learning to enjoy it.)

I, on the other hand, can’t really remember not loving to read. In first grade when we had a reading contest, I won by hundreds of books. We got Easter eggs to put on the wall for every book we read, and the poor teacher could barely keep up with me. I read twice as many books as the rest of the class combined. Fortunately for me and my social standing for the rest of my schooling, when teased about my nerdiness I was rather quick with my fist and good at insulting people. This saved me from really getting slapped with the nerd label. Ironically, it was that mouth and stubborn streak that caused a huge a fight with a friend later on in elementary school that left me turning to books for comfort, befriending all of the girls in the Baby-Sitters Club series. And they stuck with me much longer the friend who I eventually made up with.

The first really literary book I read that wasn’t some sort of abridged kid’s version of Huck Finn was Wuthering Heights. Their moodiness struck a chord with me in junior high and introduced me to a whole new world of books: classics and books that don’t end with happily ever after. And I still love to read books that my mom always deems depressing. But they allow me to feel something I may not otherwise (hopefully never in some cases) feel. They teach us how different people react to things, guiding us in how we react when faced with something similar. They allow us to travel the world, experience other cultures, and try new things from the comfort of our arm chairs. Quindlen makes a similar comment in the book, and notes that actually traveling this way is many times preferable to actual travel. I think that’s one of the reasons why I wasn’t too disappointed when we decided to postpone our trip to London that we were supposed to take at the end of last year. With the crazy economy and uncertainty and layoffs happening at work, we decided it would be better to get a refund and have that cash on hand in case something happened on go later. A part of me was actually relieved because I’m afraid that the real London can’t possibly hold a candle to the one in my head. Especially since the one in my head is fairly Victorian only with a better sewage and trash system and air conditioning. Modern London, with teenagers in jeans with iPhones and business people hurrying to their next meeting, isn’t what I’m envisioning. I’ll still go someday, probably sooner than later, but until then I’ll always have my books.


  1. I'm still a book nerd after discovering reading early like you, and spending most of my childhood stuck in a book. I think a good book beats reality almost any day!

    But when you do make it to London take a swing by King's Cross station to see Platform 9 and 3/4. I'm sure there are lots of other literary destinations in the city... I should look up a few.

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