“The free exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.”
– John Steinbeck
I hated reading for years.
I couldn’t stand it. I avoided books like the soul-sucking demons they were. If I had to read for homework, it took nothing short of threats of early bedtime and losing ice cream privileges to force me to the task. Even when I settled down to read, I would scowl and mope through the whole affair, and slam the book down in frustration when I finished.
I thought I would never like reading. I assumed I was just made that way.
That is until one day I was being babysat by a family friend.
I Didn’t See That One Coming
I was 9 years old at the time – in 3rd grade – and since I was at her house, I didn’t have my toys or other things to keep myself entertained. I was bored out of my mind. My babysitter was a mom of only boys and very busy about her house, so she reached for the closest thing to keep me busy. She took a book off her shelf and handed it to me.
“I have heard just the greatest things about these books. I think you will just love it!”
It was Harry Potter.
I already thought all books were stupid, but Harry Potter sounded like the stupidest book I had ever heard of.
However it tells you something of the horrid depths of my boredom that I took the book in hand and began to read it. I remember telling myself that I would prove the book really was as dumb as I thought it was.
Instead, before I went home that evening, two things in my life had changed:
- I wanted to read Harry Potter.
- I wanted to read.
The Birth of a Lit Nerd
Here I am now some 15 years later, a verified bibliophile. I can NOT devour books fast enough. I recently came home from a bookstore with a stack of books about half my height, and my family smiled at me and said, “Well, that ought to take you a week.”
I love reading. Who’d have thought? I hated reading for about 5 years of my life, but one book changed all of that. Harry Potter was the sun rising with the dawn, and suddenly my whole world changed from the illumination it brought. And now I am having a blast in the daylight (so to speak).
My experience is not totally unique either. In fact, if I might put it out there – I think it is more the norm than anything. Rare is the person, from what I have seen, that likes reading right away. More often than not, people need the experience of the ONE BOOK to convert their way of thinking.
For instance, let’s take the example of one of my favorite authors: John Steinbeck.
John Steinbeck and His Printed Devils
You all know Johnny boy – author of the tomes Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden and the tear-jerker Of Mice and Men. I think John and I are kindred spirits. He grew up in my neck of the woods – in Monterey, California. His writings always move me very deeply. And we both had a similar moment of enlightenment at age 9 when it came to reading.
I recently found this little recollection in the introduction to his unfinished (but brilliant) The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. I want to share a little with you:
I remember that words–written or printed–were devils, and books, because they gave me pain, were my enemies…. Books were printed demons –the tongs and thumbscrews of outrageous persecution. And then, one day, an aunt gave me a book and fatuously ignored my resentment. I stared at the black print in hatred, and then, gradually, the pages opened and let me in. The magic happened.
What was this book? It was Thomas Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur – the tales of King Arthur written in the original medieval English, with words like yclept, hyght and wist. Woof.
But it worked! No longer did the little devils torment him or the thumbscrews turn – reading was converted from torture to pleasure. Next thing you know he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature.
I think for most people it works something like that. It takes one book. One book that opens up the mind like a box to see the spacious world all around. It varies from person to person. For Steinbeck, it was Mallory’s Arthur. Mine was Harry Potter. For my brother Connor it was the Percy Jackson series. For others it could be any one of the millions of books written. But it has to resonate with the soul.
The Magic Ingredient
When I sit and think about it, the one aspect setting Harry Potter apart from other books I had read was that reading Harry Potter was more rewarding than not reading it. Most books I had read up to that point didn’t seem worth the fuss. Why go through the bother of reading something that didn’t teach me anything? Or why read something in which I could not see a reflection of some part of my own life at play?
In Harry Potter I found characters I cared about, and a story that mattered. I was genuinely concerned for Harry and his friends. I wept over Sirius Black’s tragedies and took heart from Dumbledore’s encouragement. I cheered when Voldemort failed and danced when Gryffindor won the quidditch cup. The book as a whole taught me, entertained me, frightened me, comforted me, upset me and made me care. It didn’t speak down to me as a child, but rather lifted me up as a human being.
In a word, it brought to me everything that stories are supposed to bring us: enlightenment. A way to see the world beyond ourselves. It’s a marvelous experience, and one unparalleled by any other medium. Stories and literature are meant to teach us about life and the world. They are intended to make us more human.
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