I often come back to the question of why we watch movies, why we listen to music, and why we read books. It was once explained to me that art fulfills a spiritual deficit. We read romance novels when our lives lack romance. We watch scary movies to see if we still get scared. Hip hop makes me feel powerful as opposed to powerless.
I’m at a period in my life where books and movies don’t have the same effect on me as they once did. I remember being younger and ravenous for books. I read everything I could and always ordered books to be shipped to my local library. As a young person with no money, the library was the place I could spend all my time while my peers went to Jamba Juice.
A number of things fueled my insatiable reading. One motivator was fear. Throughout my life I had always been smaller than my peers, and I knew that in the interest of self-preservation I would need to get very smart very quickly. Foxes are so cunning because they are not strong, Emerson told me. If knowledge was truly power, I knew that I would be safe if I simply knew more than people who were bigger and physically stronger than me.
I also read because I was so confused by everything. I didn’t understand my emotions, why I was going to school, why my parents behaved the way they did. The more I read the more I learned that everyone had a theory as to why things exist as they are. Some of these theories aligned with my experiences, and I experimented constantly to see who was right and who was wrong. One of my friends accused me of believing everything I read, and they were half right. I believed everything I read because I wanted to see what was true, and I had to put these thoughts into action to know for sure.
I also read because I was full of hope. Reading showed me that there were worlds and ideas beyond my local library and the Jamba Juice across the street. Pinole, California was a small town and I was blown away when reading about all the things that existed beyond it. I remember picking up David Sedaris for the first time and then reading every single one of his books. David Sedaris made life seem terribly beautiful, hilarious, and interesting with his short essays about odd things that happened to him. I had known for a long time that I wanted to be a writer, but David Sedaris served as an example of the kind of writer I wanted to be. Smart, funny, accessible, and sincere.
In college, I read to catch up with everyone. In class, my professors assigned books because they were necessary if I were to understand the course material. College was the first place I met people who had read more books than me. In an effort to preserve my “power”, I read as intensely as possible to ensure that I would be able to be on par with my classmates. In college I learned how to learn, and also how to read things that I didn’t understand. I remember going to my professor and telling her that some of the books she assigned were nonsense to me. She smiled and told me to take note of which passages made sense to me and which didn’t. This simple piece of advice changed my life, and freed me to pick up more books that had previously scared me away.
As a reader, there are one hundred stories I could tell about how one book led me to another, and in turn how these books affected my life. I still read (of course), but sometimes I am struck by a feeling of being full. I am not as starved as I was as a child. The books I have read and devoured have turned into something else. The books I have really read, the ones that have become a part of who I am, have become the wind beneath my wings. I hate saying “the wings beneath my wings” but I can’t find a more accurate phrase for how my reading life has affected me. I feel lighter, faster, and powerful. I feel extremely equipped to move through life knowing that I have some of my favorite authors in my ears and heart.
A life of reading means that I will never stop. Similar to food, the books we read get us through the days, the weeks, and the months. But they also become part of us, and I know I have been surprised as of late to see the words of my idols woven and grown into my own thoughts and actions. It is similar to the feeling of taking training wheels off a bike, and being thrilled at how quickly you are speeding down the street. And as you are rushing down the hill, you are joined by others who have also just taken off their training wheels. And here all of you are, like a school of minnows, rushing as fast as you can as a single unit, a whole greater than the sum of its parts.