As a child, reading was magical to me, in a figurative and literal sense. When I was 8-10 years old—my prime as a reader—I immersed myself in the charmed worlds of The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Land of Stories. I relished the brightly colored landscape of Wendy Mass novels. In those two years, I read maybe every Joan Bauer story about a 12-year-old girl with a special hidden talent. I devoured Rainbow Magic and Magic Treehouse books with a concentration I have been unable to emulate since. I wanted to move to Narnia and I couldn’t get enough of Turkish Delight. 

I remember the feeling: being in a vacuum, hearing the silence of outer space in my ears and the cacophony of characters in my mind. My dad would shout from upstairs and I wouldn’t even flinch. My mom would walk up to where I was sitting and stand in front of me for minutes without me realizing she was there. My brother would grab my book from my hands and I would erupt in violent anger. I knew already that books could be weapons, and I would hit my brother hard in the stomach with a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in order to scare him away for an hour of uninterrupted reading time. 

Nowadays, my phone buzzes and my eyes jump instantly from the page. I hear a door slam three rooms down and lose my place in a paragraph. I wish I could pinpoint what exactly tore me away from my former focus, but I don’t know. I got busier, I guess. I got distractible. I grew up. Short-form media took over my generation’s imagination. Somewhere between the TikToks and the Pomodoros, I forgot how to lose track of time. 

Around the beginning of 2022, I realized my old favorite hobby had deteriorated to a point of personal crisis. I started the long process of rebuilding my broken relationship with reading. 

I began with a small goal: I decided I would read at least 22 books in 2022, 23 in 2023, and 24 in 2024. So far, I am on track. In these books, I write down anything distracting me from what I’m supposed to be reading in order to deal with it later. That is why you can find water bottle, sweater, rug—a list of things to bring to college—in between my notes on a passage of The Man Without Qualities, a list of summer internships in my front cover of The Trial by Kafka, write your discussion post at the top of a chapter in City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan, and in big letters on the title page of Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, CALL MOM.

Eventually, I hope to get rid of this scaffolding and read for pleasure again. Is this process simply a vain attempt to regain my childlike sense of wonder? Maybe. But reading teaches me more than anything else that I don’t have to give up perpetual novelty as an adult.

I love to read. I do. That is why I am determined to teach myself to read again. To coax the child within me to come out and look at the scary sentences which she does not yet understand. Not in the same way my mom taught me to read, a hilarious saga in which we would scream at each other daily over Bob Books. (Ultimately, it worked and I’m grateful.) Instead, imbued with a little flavor of that strict discipline, but mostly with a lot of patience, I intend to raise my adult self to be a reader because reading is how I practice compassion.

Define “practice,” not as “do,” but with the same meaning it holds when we say “practice piano” or “practice suturing.” Fiction (and history, and autobiography) is the controlled, artificial environment in which we can practice empathy, if we read with an open mind. Like any skill, this takes time and repetition. In the meantime, individual books can change our lives.

For me, it started with Harry Potter. This is trite, but true, and the more I read (and write) the more I understand that unoriginality is not the worst sin, and that aiming to create something unique can be hugely hubristic. Which I was, as a third grader. I scoffed at the wizarding craze, biting down my desire to join fantasy games on the playground in order to maintain my superiority to the crowd. 

Harry Potter humbled me. 

I read one chapter from the middle of the fourth book over my friend Molly’s shoulder, and by the end of the day, I was asking my dad if he still had the copy of the first book he had offered me months before. After that fateful day, I sat next to Molly on the low wooden wall surrounding my elementary school playground and we read together during recess. We were two bookish blondes, ignoring the bell at the end of recess because we were too wrapped up in the quandaries of Luna Lovegood and Mad-Eye Moody. In those days, we were inseparable and indiscernible. Molly McMahon. Maddy Murnick.

When I was fifteen and my brother eleven, I read Harry Potter aloud to him. Those books were truly magical because somehow, the electric blue tome of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix was privileged above the Nintendo Switch. To this day, each time I open any of the copies, I see my father’s name written in ballpoint pen on the top right of the title page, reminding me that I am holding a gift. Something that both of us have now read as adults but which makes us feel like kids again.

Through Harry Potter, reading became something I shared with other people, and something that could surprise me. The series now forms the foundation of a fairly large stack of books and stories that have changed my life. 

A Ring of Endless Light by Madeleine L’Engle changed the way I think about God. Felicity, a book of poetry by Mary Oliver, made me notice grasshoppers. The Aeneid taught me to love Latin, and to read things in their original language whenever I can. Also to read slowly whenever I can. Emma humbled me again, though for different reasons than Harry Potter did, and then became embedded in my life as a comfort novel. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson forced me to take pictures in books seriously. The Best We Could Do, a graphic memoir, taught me to take books made entirely of pictures seriously. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien made me rethink the purpose and craft of fiction writing. It taught me that even a fictional story must be true, and that truth does not have to be factual. Stoner by John Williams showed me how books can be eerie and reassuring at the same time, when they seem to reflect your own life too accurately. Giovanni’s Room changed the way I think about stigma, and loneliness, and men. Silver Water by Amy Bloom helped me understand a lot about mental illness, specifically the way it strikes only some people, and the way life continues around it. Le Roi se Meurt, by Eugene Ionesco, reconciled for me the randomness of existence and the need for meaning in life, which used to feel like a great philosophical quandary, but all I had to do to figure it out was just sit there, reading. 

There are books and stories I’ve read that didn’t transform me, but many, many of them have. Honestly, it doesn’t take much for a book to change my life, to slightly nudge my perspective half an inch wider or to alter the course of my life a quarter of a degree to the left. If a book can make it through the labyrinth of starts and stops in my distractible mind, it will probably stay there.

Creation is regurgitation, and I regurgitate what I read. I do my best writing when it feels like I am not inventing anything, but simply writing down what it feels like I already know. This reservoir of intuitive knowledge is man-made, picked up from other books. So, the borders between my reading and writing are messy. Since I was about 12, I have copied my favorite lines from books into the back of my journals. I also write in my printed books. As well as lists of things not to forget about, I include essay ideas, important page numbers, exclamation points, stick figures, and sad faces. Most of my annotations are not strictly necessary, but the action of scratching something onto the page is enough. It is a physical process reflecting my ownership of the words, the way I will make them my own.

I read every day. I read music. I read magazines. I read movie captions and billboards. I read the back of cereal boxes and the front page of newspapers. I read online articles, and text messages from friends, and the Hyundai Owner’s Manual. I read the room (sometimes incorrectly) and I read the expression on my friends’ faces. I read the instructions on the tags of my clothes which tell me how to launder them. I know I will never forget how to read, but sometimes I forget its magical power to make time go away.

Every book that has changed my life is a good reason for me to repair my relationship with reading. Every half-decent piece of writing I produce following their example is another good reason. So, I’m determined to go back to my oldest love, the printed page, and figure out where we went wrong. I’m not giving up on us. I couldn’t if I tried.

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