“Under I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.” Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird
Banned Book week always makes me think. As does the quote above. I only just read To Kill a Mockingbird late last year and fell in love with it. However, the quote above took a moment to sink in. It is true; one does not love to breathe. It is simply something we assume is working the way it should be. It is an essential piece of keeping one alive but a piece we rarely think about until, as Lee notes, it is lost or threatened in some way. Reading is to me, as it was for Scout, as essential as breathing.
I am not sure where that comes from exactly. I was always being read to as a child. I can remember certain books at my grandmother’s house that were read to me so often that I could “read” them from a very young age simply because I had them memorized. I remember there was always a bookshelf in my room and it was always filled – I don’t remember ever owning an empty bookshelf. My talent for reading though was cultivated when my aunt used me as a guinea pig for her college projects. She was studying to be a teacher if I recall correctly but I don’t remember what I had to do for her at all. I do remember the gift she gave me when it was done – a hardcover, gorgeous edition of Beauty and the Beast based on the Disney film version. I still have it to this day. On the first page of the story, the word “majestic” appears – I remember being proud that I knew what that word meant and how to pronounce it the first time I opened the book. I was in second grade.
I always had my nose in a book. I could read anywhere – in a car, on a plane, lying out under the sun, cozy under the covers, in a loud crowded room (essential around my family). Any place was a good place to pull out a book and dive in. I think my family thought I was slightly nuts but they never stopped me and always encouraged me. I am thankful they let me read what I wanted, that they trusted me in my reading choices. I remember Mom reading to both my sister and me in my early elementary school years – Shiloh was one we cried our way through. Encouraged by teachers and what I was reading in school, I got to read some fabulous books in elementary school. Fourth and fifth grades though are when I start to remember classroom reading well – The Girl with Silver Eyes, Farmer Boy, The Iceberg Hermit, Where the Red Fern Grows, Summer of the Monkeys. We read the Tripods trilogy as a class in 5th grade and my love of science fiction was born (much to my father’s delight). Dad also made sure I read Jack London’s works, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and Dove while in elementary school. House rules for school reading challenges: I pick one book, Dad picks the other. The only time this didn’t work was when he set me to Have Space Suit, Will Travel. It was one of the first books I didn’t much get along with though it would take me years to learn it was OK to walk away from a book I didn’t like without finishing it and the world wouldn’t end.
My book explosion came in 6th grade when I discovered the Anne books. I had been bored with Babysitter Club books and other series didn’t really interest. I went through a Catherine, Called Birdy phase but then somehow, and I don’t even remember how, I stumbled across Anne of Green Gables. I don’t think it’s a day my mother thinks of fondly. For the next few months she was continually running me out to the mall so I could buy the next book in the series. Finally, I bought the last three books in one fell swoop. I adored Anne, and later her kids. I wanted to live in a world like they did. From Anne, I discovered Jane of Lantern Hill and all of L.M. Montgomery’s short stories. I also fell into Holocaust literature in a big way in 6th grade – I read everything I could find though If I Should Die remains one of my favorites.
As I got older, reading for fun was regulated to summers as during the school year, I had too much homework, far too many extracurricular activities and other responsibilities that time to read for fun was lost a lot of the time. College was even worse but I was an English major, I had to read for most of my classes. Here is where I discovered Dickens, Austen, and the Brontës in all their glory. I came to them late (well, Dickens I had met and loved in high school but I never got back around to him), but not a moment sooner than I needed them. At the end of four years of studying English and writing papers, these authors reminded me of why I loved to read in the first place.
But to return to why I started to write this in the first week, Banned Books week. I had never actually looked at the Banned Books list before today. I’d read about books when they were being challenged and I had a vague idea that I’d read a good many of them by now but I’d never actually checked because the idea seemed sort of silly to me. Just a list of books I might not want to read? Why on earth not? Some of the most compelling reads are ones that challenge what you belief, what you think is right and what is wrong and that shows you just how grey our world actually is. Why would someone want to deliberately stay “safe” and not read something that will make them think and defend themselves? So, perhaps, speaks the English major, but it seems to me the very opposite reason I read. I read to be entertained yes, but also to be challenged, to learn to question myself and the world around me. In short, I read to learn about myself and the world I live in and the great thing about reading is, the book doesn’t even have to be a realistic setting! It can be on another planet, in another time and I will still learn. Sigh, the joys of reading! May I never lose it!