Today is the NEA’s National Read Across America day. (It’s also Dr. Seuss’s birthday.) When a friend told me about it (I might have failed in my Official Library Responsibilities by not knowing such a thing existed), it made me think about myself as a reader in a way I never have before:
What if I wasn’t a reader?
That’s sort of as hard for me to imagine about myself as trying to replace my brown eyes with green, or my abnormally high forehead with a short one, or my ultra-flexible feet with stiff ones. Being a reader—loving books and always reading something and thinking about stories—is the part of my identity that has been with me the longest. I wasn’t born reading, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books.
Who would I be without that trait?
Most definitely I wouldn’t be a librarian. Probably I never would’ve been a high school English teacher, either, because part of why I became a teacher is the way I was saved by books that I learned about in high school English. I wouldn’t have writerly aspirations.
I would be in an entirely different place, career-wise.
But at a more elemental level, I would be different. I wouldn’t be myself without having wandered P. E. Island with Anne as a kid, or Narnia or Wisconsin and Kansas or England or The Lands Beyond. They gave me a glimpse of the world outside my little community.
That battered index of Greek gods and goddesses I borrowed fifty times from the library when I was a kid changed my life. It taught me that there are many ways of making sense of the world, and that there are stories behind everything if you look hard enough. Part of me will always be Artemis, and part Selena, and part Medusa (who is entirely misunderstood), and entirely always Persephone.
I would be less of a person without having fought the Trojan War, and then tried to get home with Odysseus and founded Rome with Aeneas. I am forever haunted by the deaths of Dido and Iphigenia. Isn’t Penelope the real hero of The Odyssey? And Cassandra—Cassandra and I are secret sisters, separated by centuries and oceans but still companions.
What if I hadn’t read Cat’s Eye when I was in my deepest floundering moments? What if the strange courage of Moira and Offred hadn’t been a way for me to find my own strange braveries? What if the sadness and gloom of Sylvia Plath hadn’t been the thing to lift me out of my own?
Who would I be?
Without Cathy and Heathcliff in all of their terribleness, without Tess, without Ophelia, without Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, without Dr. Frankenstein and Dorian Gray and Grannyweatherall?
Without Clarisse, without John the Savage, without Vashti and Kuno, without Julia or Liberty 5-3000 or even without Jonas or Tally Youngblood or Katniss? Or dystopias in general?
What if I couldn’t pick up a book and be reminded of my dad? Or find a little piece of my sister or my friend or my child or my grandmother? Or myself?
I can’t imagine who I’d be without the influence of books. They have been solace and savior. They have broken me open and put me back together in a better form. They have taught me what I needed to know without having to do as many hard things. They have taught me compassion, understanding, and empathy; how to survive devastation and unimaginable loss. They have helped me understand other races and cultures and perspectives. They’ve brought history to life and sparked my imagination. They have whisked me off to foreign lands in order to teach me about my own backyard; they have introduced me to strange creatures to tell me something about being human.
I love books.
I love reading.
I love how stories have shaped and influenced and changed me.
I wouldn’t be me without books and I am grateful for whatever brain chemistry or personality trait or maybe just my mother’s willingness to read to me—whatever magic happened to make me a reader, it is my favorite magic ever.
What are you reading today?