NAKED WITHOUT A BOOK
(This I Believe, 2014)
When I take the elevator downstairs to check my mail or pick up a package at the front desk, I slip my Kindle into my purse and carry it with me, even though I’ll be riding back upstairs in just a few minutes.
Why, you may wonder, for a two-minute elevator ride, would I carry such a thing? Well, that way I’m prepared should the elevator get stuck. While waiting to be rescued, I would have a book to read, and with my Kindle I’d have more than one, in case I’m stuck for a very long time. I carry either a book or my Kindle with me when I go across the street to the supermarket, and down to the laundry room, and anywhere I have to stand on line (the post office, the pharmacy). I feel naked without reading matter on my person. In my younger, vainer days, I felt naked without earrings and lipstick, but these days it’s the written word I cannot be without.
I read because it transports me into emotional and psychological terrains that I would never be able to enter in “real life.” Reading allows me to get to know characters unlike any I might ever meet. Reading takes me into galaxies beyond Earth, sometimes literally, always metaphorically. I learn from reading how to live a more ethical life, and how to be more compassionate towards other people.
Years ago, I spoke at a conference in Italy. There was to be a lot of down time at the airport between flights, as well as a lot of down time at the conference itself, which was to last over a week. Sure, I would go sight seeing and attend the local festivals, but what to do about my need to read every day? I packed an entire suitcase of nothing but books. It weighed a ton. I practically injured myself for life lugging it around. But it was worth it, because I would have gone mad without my books. When I got home, I bought my first Kindle, and saved my back during subsequent travel. At home, though, where the weight of the object doesn’t matter, I often savor the feel of a solid book in my hands.
I teach graduate school, and there is one thing I never fail to say to my students: Always carry something to read with you. Anywhere you are, find a comfortable position to read — chair or bed? Side or back? Sitting or standing on the subway? If on an airplane, forget the movie and take out your book, magazine, newspaper, E-reader, whatever, and never be shy about turning on the overhead light.
When I first met my future husband, reading was one of our instant bonds. We passionately discussed the books we were currently reading and recommended favorites to each other (me, Angela Carter; him, Nabokov). Nowadays, you will often find the two of us side-by-side in the evening, balancing our books or Kindles on our laps, absorbed in our respective literary worlds, still stopping now and then to share with each other a beautiful sentence or a thought inspired by an author’s words.
My close friend who is dyslexic reads just a few books a year. Reading is too much work for her — “It’s just too hard,” she says. She is embarrassed by how little she reads, and I feel for her. Perhaps if she’d been diagnosed early, as a child, she might have gotten help and would now be able to devour books as voraciously and happily as she longs to. She is acutely aware that it is her loss, and I wish I could wave a magic wand and transform her into someone for whom decoding words and letters comes easily and naturally. Yet, even she and I get to share the written word; despite her dyslexia, she writes short personal essays for her own pleasure, and I read them, and we discuss their meaning to her.
I’ve taken readily to social media, especially Facebook — another venue in which language and ideas are shared and fervently discussed. Among my greatest joys are sharing posts with my Facebook friends about books that I love, and discovering new books and authors from my friends’ posts. I’ve learned about books (and articles and essays) that I wouldn’t have known about any other way, and I’m grateful to my friends for their generosity in spreading the literary word via new technology.
At the moment, I’m reading a beautifully written dystopian novel about a possible future for our beleaguered world. It reminds me to cherish the family and friends that I love. It reminds me to help to save my planet. It reminds me of the power of the imagination. It reminds me, quite simply, of how much I love to — and need to — read.