Confessions of a Book Addict
“Reading is Fundamental,” proclaims a well known slogan designed to entice children to read. The statement suggests that literacy is not only a virtue, like vegetables perhaps, but actually worth doing for its own sake. But I would argue that the sentiment is a bit forced, and grows out of a popular, if unspoken, feeling we as a society might not be so quick to admit that habitual reading is essentially somehow adverse to one’s own natural instincts, and that it is therefore not likely that any child, left to her own devices, would embrace it, and regard it, without being told to, as an activity worthy of one’s precious and scarce free time. It is only by holding one’s nose and taking the medicine, the covert message implies, that one can actually convince herself that reading is recreation and not primarily a chore.
I am one of those comparatively rare souls who never needed slogans to want to read, someone for whom the smell of library stacks arouses pleasant memories of lazy hours immersed in a favorite activity. In fact, I can say, as a person at an AA meeting might, that I am an addict, who cannot imagine life without books, but that, much as an alcoholic might, I have had to hide this at various parts of my life, have had to pretend that for me, as for most, reading was just a tool and not an end in itself.
When I was a child, I lived in a suburban Philadelphia neighborhood of the very sort this slogan targets. It was a compact place, lined with brick row homes the color of dried blood, with neat postage stamp lawns or patios. Within easy reach, one could find schools, a bakery, a butcher, post-office, grocery, and most important to me, a branch of the free library, right across the street.
The Bushrod branch was very small, boasting at most a couple of thousand volumes, most of which I had read by the time I went away to school at 19. The collection aimed to please the locals, with special displays of romance novels and best sellers on many of the central shelves, and on racks near the circulation desk. But there were plenty of other, less conspicuous, books on the back shelves, in the poetry section, the prose fiction section, the science fiction and fantasy section, whole worlds quietly waiting, yet to be plumbed. I aimed to explore these worlds.
I spent the dark ages before I could read trying to puzzle out the hieroglyphs on the page and on street signs. It was a painful itch, the desire to know what they said, much like the feeling I still have in a restaurant when I cannot make out the sheet of specials written out in Chinese, where I suspect all the choicest dishes are hidden. Once, I even stole a newspaper from the still-warm stack on the corner, reasoning that perhaps if I could claim a copy for myself (since my father never let me touch his), I would be able to crack the code.
At five, I joined the club of literate citizens, and was permitted my very own personal library card, a day I recall as a major milestone in my early life. Each week thereafter, I carefully combed the shelves for books of all kinds—stories, poems, biographies, coffee table books as wide as the day—checking out the limit of 11 books I would carry home in bags, one on each shoulder.
One would think that school would be a haven for such a bookish child, but it was not. Instead, I plainly felt that to admit my addiction would be unwise. I had seen this clearly at home, where my mother, on finding me immersed in a novel on a sunny weekend in summer, would unceremoniously boot me out of the house to play with the neighborhood kids, as though to stay inside on such a day were entirely unnatural.
So perhaps it is not so surprising then that my favorite place to read was the top step of the cold, unfinished basement, dark as a cave. By the light of a single swinging bulb, I would sit in silence, reading the dwindling pile, hoping not to be discovered. I knew that if my mother found me, she would send me outside to play. At the same time that reading was supposed to be good for me, a virtue, it was also a kind of guilty secret I had to hide. I knew it wasn’t considered quite normal to want to read as much as I did, and that’s why I hid away to do it, as alcoholics hide quarts of vodka in the cupboard or in the sock drawers.
Further confirmation of this came in first grade, an academic summit I had imagined in kindergarten as a world full of stories and books, which was actually something far more dull and expected—just a continuation of the same old thing, without the naps. The only reading matter were Dick and Jane readers, where the ninnies populating the pages would exclaim endlessly over an ice cream cone or the antics of the equally vapid dog and cat. Still, slim pickings were better than none, and as the class waited its turn to read these books aloud, one halting sentence at a time, I had already read the book twice from one cover to the other, and thus did not know which line I was supposed to read. This my teachers interpreted as solid evidence of my lack of intellect.
I could not wait to get out of the school so I could head home, not to the house, but to the library, where I could indulge my craving undisturbed. It was cool on the hottest day, and held others like myself, who would look up occasionally from their books or magazines with pure gratitude, knowing the others there would not judge them for good or for ill. The librarian in particular was always glad to see me, and would rush up as soon as she saw me, holding out her latest find, one set of false eyelashes hanging loose on her cheek like a demented daddy long legs.
As a teacher today, a professional reader, I can never reclaim the pure joy of these earliest forays into reading. But sometimes, with luck, I can relive them in flashes. In these rare moments, the moment expands indefinitely. I am no longer a resident of this world, but of another, permitted the magical power to live whole lifetimes in another’s mind, another’s world. I emerge slowly, blinking and dazed, like a prophet returned from the wilderness or a warrior from the vision quest. My world is altered forever.