I’ve been a voracious reader my whole life, but I feel as if I’ve only recently grown into the stereotype of a book nerd – someone who reads classical literature and understands and enjoys it as well as engaging with the text, someone who reads nonfiction in order to learn something new. As a kid, from late elementary school through college, I read fantasy almost exclusively, outside of class assignments. Nothing else seemed interesting.
Even though I enjoyed my English classes growing up, and I often got accolades for reading so many books, my tastes weren’t what you would call literary. In early elementary school as I learned to read, I enjoyed a variety of genres, from historical fiction, to mystery to just general slice of life stories about kids my age in roughly modern times. But from late elementary school through, oh, about college, I was an avid fantasy reader. I read some of the classics of the genre, I read crappy romance with a supernatural theme, I read many Harry Potter knock-offs. Outside of schoolwork, I really had to force myself to read anything which didn’t include magic in some way.
I’m convinced the only reason that my taste in literature changed was because of the dearth of available books on my study abroad. I had to learn to get less picky when normal when I went to the only English language bookstore I had seen in months in Kota Kinabalu, or when perusing the teachers’ library at Hwa Nan Women’s College, or in the little bookshops all over Dharamsala. When there’s nothing but books on Buddhist practice, Twilight, Paulo Coelho and Mitch Albom books, you learn to make do with what you can find.
In Malaysia I bought Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, since I’d be going to India later that year. My journey with Midnight’s Children was like a metaphor for my whole study abroad experience, even if my story doesn’t mirror the plot of the book. I bought it in Malaysia, read it in Vietnam, then left it as a donation to the teacher’s library in our school in China.
Midnight’s Children was the first in my journey toward a more rounded literary palette, but my exploration continued after that. In China itself, I stumbled across Jane Austen’s Persuasion, and since I had learned to love Pride and Prejudice years earlier in my AP English class I thought I’d give it a shot. My journey with Pride and Prejudice started out rough, when I read it by myself as a freshman in high school, I had not really understood it – the vocabulary was inscrutably archaic for my 14-year-old mind. But when we had to read it in class three years later, I found I could understand it so much better, and now P&P is one of my favorite re-readable books. I approached Persuasion with cautious optimism. Sorry for any Persuasion fans, but I have to say it wasn’t my favorite. Even so, it stirred a Jane Austen passion in me which caused me to buy Sense and Sensibility when I found it in a bookstore in Sikkim at the end of the year, and jump-started my Jane Austen marathon.
I continued to read for pleasure in grad school, moving away from fantasy and into what might be called “literary fiction.” Then, I started reading nonfiction. For fun.
It all started with the book Lies My Teacher Told Me, which made me care about American history much more than I ever had before. I always loved history, but American history was like the boring, too close to home, cheerleader rah-rah story of why America is the best, which I have long since outgrown. To read about the way history is shaped and outright whitewashed gave me a thirst to learn more about this country than I had ever felt.
Being forced to read the classics in school hadn’t made me into a literature buff, and reading academic works in college and grad school hadn’t made me into a scholar. I had to discover it on my own. It feels weird to say that, because growing up I had always equated “loves to read” as “loves literature” or “loves to learn.” I don’t regret reading all those fantasy stories, but now I’m playing catch-up with all the great diversity of books I didn’t care for before.
Another huge change during grad school shaped the way I read today.
No, it wasn’t working on my thesis or my other class workload, what a silly suggestion.
The first change was that my boyfriend got me a kindle. This was especially sweet considering we’d only been going out for two months, and those things aren’t cheap. This changed my access to books by giving me the ability to carry many with me at once, which was a revelation. I used to have to squeeze two books into my purse if I was afraid I was going to finish the first one before I got home.
But it definitely changed how I approach reading. I had been against e-readers, I love the smell of new books, I love the idea of having a hard copy forever, etc. One change I couldn’t prepare for, was how reading with a kindle would change how I read, the act of reading itself, and my relationship to books.
Once I got used to the kindle, I branched out even farther, into audiobooks, largely to support my friend who had started a career in voice narration. These aren’t exactly new; my parents used to get books on tape to listen to on family vacations (usually not the kind of books I was ever interested in reading). However, since I don’t have a car, I haven’t had to switch to audiobooks yet as I can use my hands to hold a book or kindle and focus on the page or screen as I sit on the bus, rather than having to focus on driving.
There’s something very powerful about hearing a book, especially if it’s read by the author. I listened to comedian Aziz Ansari read his book Modern Romance, and enjoyed how he turned his wit against the audiobook listener, calling us lazy for not just reading the book ourselves, etc. It’s a different experience, one only the listener shares with the author, because his snide asides aren’t in the text.
Contrast this with the heart-wrenching experience of hearing Ta-Nehisi Coates reading his scathing indictment of systemic racism in American society, Between the World and Me. The book is written as a letter to Coates’ son, and hearing him read his own words felt like intruding on a private family story. His words were powerful by themselves, but I’m glad I heard them in his voice, his intonation. I think something would have been lost if I just read the words in silence.
I’ve moved away from the snobbery which clings to the physical book, and I’m better for it. I’ve never been a fan of death of the author literary criticism, how can words just exist by themselves, ideas divorced from the thinker? Sure, sometimes we only have the text, if the author is dead and especially if the author is ancient and even more so if the ancient author never identified themself. We have only the text, and the text alone is canon. But that doesn’t mean that the pure and independent text only has meaning unto itself. I believe we lose something when we disengage the author from the text, or take the text out of the context in which it was meant to be viewed.
I run into this sometimes with the Kindle – it can’t display color, so if there are illustrations, I lose something. Even the covers lose some of their luster, displaying in my library only in faded gray. I firmly support the concept of e-readers, as they allow you to carry a whole library with you, and download a book instantly rather than having to wait for it to be shipped if the bookstore doesn’t have it. Even so, there are drawbacks to reading this way, which is why I sometimes have to stop and purchase an actual physical book.
Part of that is just to remind myself of how a physical book even works.
You see, I deal with actual physical books everyday – I work in a library. However, in my job, I’m usually working with Japanese language books, which are often printed to open from what would be the back of an English book – like Hebrew or Arabic, the spine is on the right when you open the front cover. The combination of reading on a kindle and dealing with books which are often “backwards” from my perspective has made me sort of forget the normal (for English language) way to open a book. To confuse matters more, sometimes Japanese books open the English way. This is because Japanese can be written two ways: top to bottom, or tategaki (縦書き); and left to right, or yokogaki (横書き). The thing is, when Japanese is written in tategaki, the columns run right to left, so the book opens with the spine on the right. You might be familiar with the tategaki style if you’re a fan of manga. I’m so mixed up sometimes that I have to grab an English book and practice opening it, just to make sense of my world.
The bookworm who can’t remember how a book opens is a paradox for the modern era, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing.
The types of books I love have evolved, and the way I experience books has also shifted, but my love remains. I know many people who can’t enjoy books like they once did, so I will continue to cherish my books, as long as I can, in whatever form.