While I’m making my way through Moby-Dick and gearing up for To a God Unknown, making a post more on the personal side felt appropriate.
My journey on becoming a reader isn’t going to be told as a simple one. I could tell you how I was motivated one day to pick up a book and became a reader instantaneously, which wouldn’t be a lie, but it would undermine the complexity of why I kept returning to these printed pages. Some people are readers from childhood, some become readers later in life, and others unfortunately never find the beauty in the written word. I’m in no way condemning this, I was this person for the majority of my years, but when I first picked up 1984 by George Orwell at the ripe age of 25, regret set in. The regret of knowing I went through seven years of my adult life without picking up a single book outside of my school work.
When I was a child my Mom always stressed the importance of reading and the benefits that came with it. She would read me stories before I went to bed just as many amazing Mothers (and Fathers) do. My first memories of reading revolve around The Berenstain Bears, Dr. Seuess, and a Norweigan fairytale called Three Billy Goats Gruff. I had no idea the story dated back to 1841, nor did I know it was Norwegian. I always assumed that as long as the form of entertainment wasn’t in black and white or said so otherwise, it must be from the present day. Just imagine my reaction when I found out most of the Disney movies I was watching weren’t made in the 90’s! A sense of history must not have come naturally to me. Regardless, Three Billy Goats Gruff is the earliest memory I have of yelling to my Mom, “read it again, read it again!”
As I grew older and began to read books on my own, I became obsessed with buying books. Since my Mom looked at them as educational, she was happy to buy me new books as long as I read them, and I did read them at that age. I remember in 4th grade my class had to write down the hours during the week we each spent reading, have their parents sign the form, and the kid with the most hours at the end of the month received a prize. I sat in my room and churned out Ronald Dahl books like a fiend, never once lying on my form (another great trait I got from my Mother). I won and received a brand new camera at the end of the month. It was colored red and made of plastic, most likely valued at a few bucks, but it took pictures and I was proud of it.
When I started to get more involved in sports and other activities, my reading habits as a youngster became very sporadic. I may have been a reader for a month, using my allowance to buy new books at the school book fair, but then setting them down and returning to some other hobby and never actually reading them. As someone with an addictive personality, this is not surprising. I went through phases as much as anyone, so it was common for me to be obsessed with an activity one day and disinterested the next. One of these addictions that have always been present in me is my interest in collecting. Pokemon cards, baseball cards, books, you name it. I have spent a lot of money on things that I never got around to using. All of these things shared an aesthetic that attracted me as a young kid. While my interest in reading waned as I went into my teenage years, I don’t think my love for the aesthetics of them was ever lost. It always seemed to be the aesthetics of books that motivated me to purchase more, not necessarily the stories inside them. So when I reached high school and was forced to read books I had no interest in, with copies that were torn and tattered, it doesn’t surprise me the stories inside them weren’t met with adulation. I had other things in my life at the time that were more important to me. I played sports after school, did my schoolwork, and whatever had to be done for English class was done, but not with enthusiasm and certainly not out of a love for the written word.
College came around and schoolwork became a priority. My social life also became a priority. I went out every weekend and had the time of my life. These were the best years of my life and I wouldn’t trade them for the world. However, if I wasn’t out partying, I was in the library studying, and if I wasn’t studying I was binge watching Entourage with my roommates. Reading a book only once crossed my mind. Even if I did give reading a thought I would have needed a quiet area to do it. My apartment was filled with constant noise. How about the Library?…No. The library is where I would go when I was stressed out of my mind and my body was filled with unhealthy amounts of coffee. Why would I bring a book the place that I associate with exams and mental fatigue? This was not a peaceful place.
I got close to reading a book once in college. It was my senior year and I had recently watched Capote starring the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman. His performance shook me so hard I went on my eBay app, which I had just discovered, and ordered In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I had to know more about the Clutter family and their story. When the book arrived I lay down on my bed, opened it up, and started reading. I suppose this is where I’m to tell you I fell in love with reading again. Nope, that would be too premature. While I was enjoying it, something came up, most likely another movie night with the boys, and the book was put aside.
Fast forward to my years in graduate school. I worked part time for my school developing marketing related content for the library while I earned my degree (different school, different library). Part of my job was to put out social media content and get students engaged with the library. So to find content, browsing the web for bookish things was a necessity. There’s only a certain number of book recommendation lists a non-reader can look at in a day before they eventually give in and decide to pick up a book. One Saturday morning, Amazon unlimited sensed this and sent me a promotional email. I signed up, browsed around, and downloaded 1984 to my phone. To my phone, people! I read the entire book on my smartphone. George Orwell deserves better than that. Nevertheless, it was enjoyable –painful content wise, but enjoyable. As much as I enjoyed reading the book, it didn’t thrust me into a reading frenzy where I had to get my hands on more. It was a slow process. A few weekends later while at the beach with college friends, a preview came on for a Hulu series entitled 11/22/63 starring James Franco. My friend said, “you have to watch that show man you would love it”. It hit me that I recognized the title. It was originally a novel by Stephen King that was listed on a recommendation list somewhere out there on the internet. You have to keep in mind that I’m a complete sucker for anything dealing with the assassination of JFK. The topic gives me the chills and anything related to that period of United States history completely engages me. So while at my school’s library I checked out the book instead of jumping into the television series. An 840-page hardcover awaited me. I kept thinking to myself that I’m a crazy person. I’m trying to get into reading so I have this brilliant idea to pick up the largest book I can find. Well, the brain senses what it wants. Completely enthralled, I read the final 400 pages in one weekend, an absurd feat for me.
At this point, I’m ready for more books. In Cold Blood was picked back up and finished! This was the only physical book I owned at the time, but not for long. I texted my best friend that I want to start reading more. He responded with the same thing. An incredible parallel lined up the both of our lives, he not only said he wants to read more, but he truly meant it. He had been reading lately as well and was completely on board. We created a list of 40 titles full of modern classics, old classics, and a few books at random. Our intent was to catch up on books we read in high school but could not remember in the slightest. It was a long list full of ups and downs, but after just eight months we finally completed it. So here I am, still in graduate school, with writing intensive courses constantly on my mind, and I still managed to read all these books. And here I thought reading wasn’t an option for me in my undergraduate years. The experience was something I will never forget. Being able to rediscover a love for reading while connecting with a friend on a deep level is a beautiful thing. Reading is no longer simply a phase I’m going through anymore, it is a part of my lifestyle. Books are something I will be able to turn to at any point in my life down the road. Am I still addicted to buying books? Guilty. But I’m now at a point where I know the books I buy will be read at some point. I’m not reading them because I feel I have to and I’m not reading them just to say that I did, but because I truly want to absorb the stories that are inside them. That is something that I could not say as a 10-year-old book hoarder.
So as I look forward to the many books on my shelf, I want to hear your story. Are you a long time reader? Are you a newbie like myself? Are you someone that went to school to study books? How did it all begin for you?