07 April 2014
For book lovers everywhere, but especially for the littlest book lover in my life.
At 15 months old, nothing makes my heart swell with pride and affection quite like when you bring me books to read, and perch expectantly at my hip, or stretch so that your tousled hair is tucked under my chin, and your toes tickle my knees. I read you even Kerouac through the first summer of your life, and though I may have just sounded like a comforting droning on, as you gazed at your mobile, or drifted into a sticky, sweet sleep, your neck cradled in the crook of my elbow, swaying on the porch swing, cicadas singing, my love of books has rubbed off all over you, just as I had hoped it would. By 9 months old, you’d inquisitively peer for long stretches of time, at a page of puppies or Dr. Seuss’s whimsies, before gently turning to the next, and the way you thumb the pages of my paperbacks, they way you’ve seen me do, makes my heart swim in strokes beneath my rib cage.
This is where it all begins. Before you are the best years of discovering the beauty, the glory, the sucker-punches, the sorrows, the comedy, and the triumphs, all sewn between spines. I hope there will be evenings in which you shovel down forkfuls of dinner so fast that you mother tells you to slow down and your father laments the way the sponge barely touches the dish in your hurried hand, as you take the stairs two at a time, soap suds still snaking from your wrists, and toss yourself, barefooted across your bed to where the book, whose plot arc and characters occupied your thoughts in every moment between, still lies faithfully waiting, open-faced and dog-eared on your pillowcase.
I hope you’ll know to bring at least two tote bags to library, because it will always be a mystery how you can walk in with one book in mind, and walk out with a couple dozen, dangling like jewels from your tender elbows, thumping into your knees, as you adjust the weight of them all several times, and step into the street. They’re not like jewels, they are jewels. Your father will tell you to marry a man who will buy you expensive jewelry, diamonds to grace your neck, that it’s a wise financial investment. Respect your father, but remember a man who buys you books, is the one who invests in your heart and your intellect. If black opals don’t make you swoon like Lord Alfred Tennyson, forget them.
Though the other kids may compare what phones they have, or brag about seeing adult movies, and girls who lean against the sinks in the school bathrooms, painting their lips, gossiping about boys, may roll their eyes at the book under your arm, don’t ever let others snuff out something you love. If you learn anything from me, let it be that. You may feel you’re a million miles away from society sometimes, like a strange anomaly or alien uprooted from its home, and wonder if reading is irrelevant or unpopular — it may very well be the latter — but remember that the written word, that storytelling itself, has survived all the turmoil and triumphs of humanity thus far, and you are its torch. Keep it lit and and it will give you light. Forge into darkness with the knowledge of those who have gone before you, who have felt what you feel, and some who have felt what you’ve never felt, who have experienced things that will crack your mind wide open to new ideas, cultures, and understanding.
Some will say books are magic, and not mean spells and witchcraft. This magic, is that time machines and portals to other worlds have already been invented, they’re not farfetched and futuristic, but something that began with the first wordsmith. One day, you will look up and realize hours have passed unnoticed, that golden afternoon has become the ebony night, all while you had inhabited another soul squeezed out between the pages. In the madcap scramble of our world, this is magic, to unshackle ourself from the constraints of time, the consciousness of our flesh and blood and beating hearts, if only for a few hours.
Don’t ever let anyone fool you into thinking reading isn’t living in the real world. There may be few things more real than what people impart to the page, when they pick up their souls, dust them off, and shake them out into ink and paper. I have traveled thousands of miles, figuratively and literally, because of books. It was a fictional character that gave me the courage to quit a dead-end job and buy a one-way plane ticket and never look back. I’d never have known you, if it wasn’t for that book.
But sometimes reading will be an escape, an emergency exit you take when life becomes overwhelming. When fire chokes the air with smoke of melodrama and indecision and heartbreak, let them be a breath of oxygen. On other days, they’ll be the kindling for your imagination, for your sense of wonder, stoke that fire often, and it will burn passionately. Stash a flashlight under your pillow for when a book won’t let you sleep until you’ve devoured every last page, because there will be books like that.
I hope you have to press your cheek into the carpet as you peer under your bed to find that last library book, because with so many, they’ll have spirits of their own, and spill into every corner of your room, even when you could have sworn that were all neatly stacked just yesterday. I hope you feel the ache of their weight, when your fingers curl at their covers and spines, chin and outstretched arms the parentheses that encompass them. You don’t have to like every book you read, and you won’t, but I hope there’s a few that make you feel something so powerful, that all you can do is place it in your lap and weep.
In a few years, you will begin school, and you and I won’t have our days interwoven together anymore. Yours won’t be the first face I see in the morning, beaming, with brilliant, gummy smile, at the sight of me (or my keys, because I know they’re jingly and delightful, when you’re only 1 year old). One day I’ll be nothing but nostalgic and fleeting memory from your childhood, and that’s okay. People come and go, chapters begin and end, books open and close. Some will break your heart, both between the pages, and to your face, the trick is to learn from each of them, because no matter how good or bad they may seem, books or human beings, all have something to teach you.
You’re my teacher too, and I love you.
Photo by Katie Eleanor, whose otherworldly photos remind me of the feeling of reading, when I was a child, and subsequently inspired me to write this letter to the baby I nanny.