Because for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of all the things that you don’t get in real life–wonderful, lyrical language, for instance, right off the bat. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I’m grateful for it the way I’m grateful for the ocean. Aren’t you?
That oft-quoted passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is taped to my office door. It’s what came to mind as I sat down today to write about what I’m grateful for, because I figured that would be a wildly original thing to do on Thanksgiving morning (wink wink nudge nudge). Now, my gratitude goes first, in heaping, belt-busting proportions—appropriate for today, no?—to the people in my life: the family and friends without whom this world would be impossible to navigate and comprehend. I could write and write and write and never get to the bottom of what I owe to them for the love, support, trust, and boundless joy they have given to me over the years. Then I am grateful for shelter, for health, for employment; the list, and its attendant worry and guilt for those who do not have these, has already begun to spiral in my mind. So before I head to the kitchen to devil some eggs and peel apples and get casserol-y with it, I thought I’d narrow down this post and give thanks for one thing: reading.
Mom likes to tell the story of how I surprised her by reading a note aloud when I was around 3 or 4 years old. Startled, she said, “I didn’t know you could read,” and I shrugged my tot shoulders and said, “Yeah.” In some ways, that’s how reading still feels to me: like something I have always known how to do. Yet it also stands out as one of the saving graces of my life, the act to which I have turned again and again to find solace, to escape, to expand and enrich my mind. Reading has become simultaneously the most ordinary and the most wildly magic habit of my life.
My parents read to me from a very early age. Some of my earliest memories are about those stories and the little stiff Golden Books themselves; the Poky Little Puppy stands out the most. Once I could read on my own, I never stopped. In memory I clump together favorites: Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Ralph Mouse books, and then everything Judy Blume wrote. Scott O’Dell’s The Island of the Blue Dolphins. In high school, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. At the same time, I also loved the Modesty Blaise spy thrillers. And the habit continued, broadened, deepened. Nowadays, I tend to favor fiction, both novels and short stories, but I am also a fan of poetry, narrative nonfiction, and graphic narratives. A good story for me often has many qualities, but I am most drawn to those that have deeply complex, original characters in whom I am absolutely invested. As I often tell my creative writing students, “Come on, break my heart.” I want to feel something at the end, to recognize a change, to glimpse some aspect of the human condition. If I’m weeping at 3 a.m. when I finally close the cover, success! I also like dark humor, mesmerizing language, and experimental voices. I’m still a sucker for a good mystery.
I have no doubt that my life is different because I became a reader. It’s absolutely tied to my writing experience. The first time I tried to write a short story, an embarrassing foray full of clever witticisms and capital-S Symbolism, my instructor nonetheless praised it (bless her). I remember her comment: Have you written fiction before? The answer was heck no, but guess what I had done? Read. Story after story after story, whose rhythms and shapes I had absorbed so fully that I could intuit my way from beginning to end. This habit is essential for writers. What I know now is that I should be reading twice as much as I am.
Beyond the writing, though, the reason I am most grateful to reading is because of how it has taught me to see once I pull my face out of the book. What Lamott says about how an author makes us pay attention: yes. Reading champions the imagination and induces escape but it is also interactive. When we read a writer’s description, we translate the words into images that spring forth onto our mental screens– the wonderful mind’s eye. We see the characters; they become ours. We puzzle out plot cues, and we look for more. We worry for characters enmeshed in those plots. We recognize their flaws and we follow and believe in them nonetheless. We are not passive; we are active participants in the world of the story.
For me, that work of reading translates once we look up and find ourselves in this world. We are not passive; we are active. We take our lessons of reading and apply them. We learn to read our circumstances. We try to read others, scrutinizing the small details for meaning. We puzzle and wonder and worry, and this kind of reading, I am convinced, makes our lives richer.
In the midst of this holiday season, if you partake in the shopping frenzy, I urge you to give books. To everyone. Start at the baby shower. Birthdays. Give to schools that need them. Any day, well into adulthood. Get ’em at indie stores; pass ’em along used. My in-laws, now in their 70s, give me such hope in this respect: Now that they have more time, they have turned to books, reading the stories on the page from which famous movies have come.
Read to your kids. Get kids reading. Volunteer at after-school programs. Be goofy and wild in your passion for it, really mean it. I still read aloud—to college students. And you better believe their eyes still light up.
I’m grateful that mine still do, too.
Wishing everyone love, peace, warmth, shelter, health, and good cheer.