I learned to read when I was three years old.
“Is he pretending, or…” Mom said.
There was a pause. “No…he’s actually reading to them.” She sounded surprised.
I don’t remember this. My earliest memory is sitting next to my mother on our brown couch with sunlight behind us, reading a copy of the Little Golden Books version of Winnie-The-Pooh.
People talk about their formative experiences, and I consider this the most formative of all. For literally as long as I can remember, I have loved to spend my time with a nose in a book. Family lore tells of how intense my concentration was as a kid, that I would get so absorbed in a book that my mother would have to shake me to get my attention.
The happiest memory of my childhood was after I got my library card. I would go to the library over the summer and check out five to twelve books at a time. Then I’d go home and lay in the hammock on the screened in porch, reading one book after another without taking a break.
This was pure bliss.
My parents owned a small mobile home at Atwood Lake which served as a summer getaway. After I got over complaining about having to go (Lawn mowing. There was always lawn mowing to be done.) I would climb the big tree in the front yard, nestled in the sturdy branches; I would lose myself in a book.
Books shaped my career. My first job was as a page at the local library. In high school, I worked for Waldenbooks and B. Dalton over different summers. After college I worked at Booksellers, then Borders, and eventually Bookstacks Unlimited, which was my gateway to programming. Ten years later, I wrote the code for Podiobooks.com.
While I never stopped reading, the further I got into my career, the harder it was to lose myself in the words. Too many pressures. While I believe that escapism through text is a good thing, I start to read in a bizarre mechanical fashion, devouring books but rarely retaining them. This was particularly true during periods of high stress. I didn’t have the mental awareness to realized what I was doing, retreating from everything for some quiet, but feeling so guilty about taking the time that I would drive myself to finish quickly. For a bibliophile, this is a sort of hell.
Recently, I spent a little time in therapy because I found I was having difficulty feeling joy or pleasure. Despite all the goodness that had come my way (good job, good kids, good new marriage), I couldn’t feel that joyful sense you get in your chest when surrounded by the people you love. I took some time, and with the help of my therapist, stumbled on Carl Jung’s story. When he was having similar issues, he looked back to his childhood to see what he loved to do. In his case, this was building little castles out of stones. He decided to do this very thing as an adult, creating a connection between the frustrated, overspent adult and boundless joy of his childhood self.
For me, this took me back to books. Time set aside to read and enjoy free of guilt or external concerns. It’s become a practice now. It’s something I schedule, that I look forward to and that I am loathed to give up. Most importantly, it forces me to slow down and disconnect so that I can truly recharge.
After about a month of this, I felt myself start to feel joy and gratitude again. It was like a reservoir filling inside me. Books helped me remove a space inside and fill it with light.
These days, I am never without a book or my Kindle. I have a catch-and-release policy with most physical books, donating them after I read them, and I make good use of my public library. I connect with the words and stories as often as I can.
Books have shaped my life. I would not be who I am today without them.