The Birth of Readers
My family didn’t have much money growing up, but I always knew I could mark an “X” next to as many books as I wanted in the Scholastic catalogue. I felt rich on the day the books arrived; a heavy stack plunked on my desk at school. As I put them in my backpack, I pulled the books to my chest, their covers smooth, spines hard and unbroken, smelling like promise. I’d hop off the bus, my back heavy, my feet light, and hurriedly walk the mile long dirt road home. I’d hide out in my pink and purple bedroom, sink down into my beanbag chair, and read.
At the library and bookstore, my desire was set free, and I flew like a bird through the aisles, tucking my discoveries under my arms. Mom, my sister, and I would come home with our arms full, and I would close my door and escape into the fantasy world of Narnia and the adventures of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sisters. In family pictures, I was often sitting in a chair, knees to my chest, cradling a book in both hands. The rest of the world was ignored.
I read both to escape and understand my world. Stumbling through major life events, I clutched a book in front of me like a map. Judy Blume helped me feel connected in my adolescence. Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was a closer friend than Tiffany or Lisa at school. In college, I read The Awakening and suddenly saw my mother as a woman. Kate Chopin allowed me to make room in my heart to forgive my parent’s divorce. When I met my husband on a blind date, I was in the middle of Snow Falling on Cedars. The separation of the star-crossed young lovers filled my own long distance relationship with a sense of urgency. Dale left his life in Atlanta to move in with me, and we were married soon after.
To make room for a nursery, Dale and I dismantled our “office.” My new husband suggested I “get rid of my books” to clear up much needed space. I was stunned.
“But you’ve read them already,” he said. My throat felt tight, but I remained quiet to keep my emotions in check. I knew he was right. Taking a deep breath, I rubbed my swollen stomach and boxed up years’ worth of paperbacks. Sitting on the floor surrounded by my books, I took my time organizing piles as I ran my hands over the covers, flipped through the pages, and re-read paragraphs of my favorites. It was an all day affair. As we packed the boxes into the shed, I felt like I was boxing up a part of myself.
As a mother of two young boys, the world is no longer easy to ignore, and my time for reading is limited. Still, my night stand is filled with books, and when my children wake in the middle of the night, as they often do, and I am left wide awake, I reach for my book. Even with my books in boxes and money spent on diapers instead of hardbacks, my passion has not diminished. I can’t not read. I read in bed with my light under the covers, my toddler spooning me from behind, unaware of the time. I read at the doctor’s office, hoping they won’t call my name. I read as the boys climb and jump from the couch to the coffee table. The stacks of books by my bed never get any smaller. Once I finish a book, a new one takes its place at the bottom of the pile. My “Wish List” at Amazon.com is three pages long with memoirs, non-fiction (my favorite), fiction, and books I think the boys will like. I print out the wish list and bring it to the library to see what I can get for free. If there’s a waiting list, I indulge in a trip to the closest bookstore, my appetite insatiable.
Our son brought home his first Scholastic catalog the other day, and I gleefully grabbed it from his backpack. Ushering him to the playroom with a snack and video, I curled up on the couch to pour through the pages with my pen in hand, ready to circle a book we didn’t already have.
Every night we stand at Will’s bookshelf where he gets one pick, and I get the other. Miles joins us with his board books in hand. We read cuddled in the bottom bunk, and I channel my mother’s voice as I chant the familiar words of Where The Wild Things Are. No matter how strained my voice is with the tension of a long day, when I open a book to read, everything changes. My breathing slows, my body relaxes, and I forget about the dirty dishes and the hungry cats and dog. Will may be bouncing next to me; Miles may be turning the pages preemptively, but they are listening. They are in my arms and against my chest; they are listening to the rhythm of my voice, absorbed in the story.
My husband recently suggested a trip to the local bookstore, and I joyfully watched as he chose new books for our boys. Miles pulled a board book about trains off the shelf, and Will sat on the stage, paging through a paperback about superheroes. I knew then, that my passion for books could not be taken away or boxed up. The boxes of books in our shed are covered in dust, the pages surely damaged by the mold of our humid, southern summers, but I had given birth to readers. My passion for reading is a part of my nature, their nature, and it is steady, and unchanging, like the pull of the tide.