When I was a kid, the public library was my Mecca. I took a pilgrimage to the George Peabody Library in Massachusetts every week. It was a behemoth of a building for books. There were three stories devoted to big fat adult books and a whole basement devoted to brightly colored children’s books. I was a connoisseur of books. I skimmed them, devoured them, and savored them. My eyes never processed those tiny, insignificant words. I was too hungry to slow down my gorge fest of fictional stories. Stories about a talking aardvark or a curious monkey or a gargantuan red dog or an accident-prone maid named Amelia Bedelia or a mischievous cat wearing a hat.
When I was six, I learned to speed read by using picture books to tell myself the stories. My eyes skipped over basic two and three letter words, and the book still made sense. The only book I wanted to read that had more words than pictures was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The voracious reader developed into a child genius because she was “nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. Those books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” Just like Matilda, books sustain me and keep me whole.
By third grade, my mom forced me to abandon picture books and read a book with just words. The book was about a boy who lived in a strange town with strange rules and strange ways. My mom called it dystopian literature because the strange town seemed perfect on the outside. The truth was there were many problems with the way people didn’t question rules that took away their freedoms. I wondered if that was why the book was called The Giver. The Giver’s role in the town was to hold onto painful memories so the rest of the town didn’t have to experience them. Jonas, the main character, receives this role. He says that “the worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” Words allow human beings to verbalize their memories; books allow us to leave scraps of memory imprinted on the pages.
Next on my mom’s list of books she wanted me to read was a diary written by a girl who lived in a secret attic hidden behind a bookcase door. She was 12, and I was eight. When I reached the final page, I became disconcerted at the unexpected line printed in all capital letters. ANNE’S DIARY ENDS HERE. The conclusion was sudden and abrupt, leaving me wondering if there would be a sequel. All I got was an afterword informing me Anne Frank had been arrested by the Gestapo, transported to Bergen-Belsen, and died there at age fourteen because of a typhus outbreak. This information was not enough to give me closure. To get it, I needed a detailed, dissertation-length report complete with dates, footnotes, and annotations. My morbid curiosity as to why Anne Frank had been silenced was my initiation into researching the Holocaust. Strange-sounding phrases such as Final Solution, Third Reich, Kristallnacht, and Einsatzgruppen began to enter my vocabulary. I could identify Oskar Schindler, Adolf Hitler, Elie Wiesel, Josef Mengele, and Miep Gies as easily as if they were pop culture icons.
Yet the reason for Anne’s death continued to elude me, and the larger issue of why the Holocaust had to have happened was still beyond my grasp. This was not to say the history lesson was enigmatic. In fact, the information was well within my level of comprehension. The basic facts were clear. I understood who killed eleven million people and how the murder had been performed. I saw the overarching themes: discrimination, prejudice, anti-Semitism, propaganda, genocide, persecution, hate. The brutality, though, remained inexplicable. At the age of eight, my conclusion was that the world was mad, insane, and unbalanced. True, global affairs had improved since the Holocaust, but crimes and atrocities still happened around the world and would continue to happen. Humanity would never learn, and nothing could be done except rant about it. Since then, my worldview has changed because I’ve read more words than Anne Frank ever had the chance to write.
After reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school, I now understood why my mom wanted me to read books without pictures. At one point in the book, a character muses that “words can be like x-rays if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” Pictures are powerful, but words contain a subtle magic that shapes mindsets and sways opinions. Whether with or without pictures, reading a book always made me feel important, intelligent, and impressive. Compared to the other kids, my brain was like flypaper, and stories stuck to it. Nobody could read as fast or as well as I could. Nothing could ever stop me from reading, and nothing ever has. Reading has always my superpower, and a book, my sidekick. Books do more than just ward off boredom and bad guys. They provide comfort during times of great distress when I have to face epic battles in life. With wit and wisdom, they point out the two things that made me the leading heroine in my own life story: my tragic flaws and my moments of excessive hubris. Books act as my personal Jedi Master. They teach me the ways of the binding force that connects people together. They contain words, which are shaped into stories that ring with truth.
The truth is that the words in the books I love have power. How do I know? The film V for Vendetta states, “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.” Words advise us to take action; they implore us to make a change; they instruct us on what to do, and they convince us of the right course of action. If we’re not careful, words will lead us on a journey that lies in wait for us right out our front door. As Bilbo Baggins, a character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, claimed, “It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Hefty hardcopy books full of printed text sweep me away from the 21st century hustle-and-bustle busyness. Typically, my reading experience is strained because at work I read text on a computer screen that flickers under yellow florescent office light. I’m constantly interrupted by Facebook notifications, text alerts, Gmail pings, ringing telephones, needy people, and a demanding schedule. The worn bindings of my favorite books offers a retreat back to the childhood memory of when I explored the endless shelves at the George Peabody Library. Traveling long distances to a newly-discovered used bookstore provides an adventurous escape from a humdrum expectation that I have to be constantly on-call and instantaneously connected. My collection of well-loved books represents bookends intended to hold up the entirety of my life story.
I’ve been a reader for so long that the word has become part of who I am. Because I’m a reader, books have shaped me into always being industrious. By the very definition of my name—Emily—industrious is how I am and what I do. What could be more industrious than absorbing words on paper? My eyes—whizzing smoothly across the page. My left shoulder—sore from carrying a heavy bag of library books. My fingers—calloused from turning page after page. Printed ink swirling and curling—the product of a pen carving away at sentences. Just one more—maybe two more pages—before bedtime. I’ve just got to keep striving forward, being industrious. Reading doesn’t just keep me busy; it keeps me breathing. Without words, the jagged green line that marches across the heart monitor might as well be stationary. I need words. They turn the world, my reality, and my perceptions from nonsense into order. Order is in the syntax. The syntax is in order. All is right with the world. With the world, all is right.