I have a friend who I suspect was born with a book in his hands.
I hope for the sake of the woman who gave birth to him that my hunch is wrong. But his persona as “voracious reader” is so fundamental to my idea of what he does and who he is that I find it hard to imagine a time before books consumed his hours, his thoughts, and his shelves.
Many of you, no doubt, are like my friend. For you, learning to read and falling in love with reading happened simultaneously. I admire and envy you. You see, the concept of being a reader is relatively new to me.
I was perusing an article recently that talked about people who do not take up running until well into their adulthood, and it referred to them as “adult-onset athletes.” While I found the label a tad amusing as it makes running sound to me a bit like a disease (which may be apt in my case as I most certainly look like I’m suffering from some horrible ailment after completing a run) it also made me think about other activities that I didn’t embrace until later in life… namely, reading.
Lest you think that I spent the majority of my life groping through some sort of barren literary landscape, unwilling to read anything longer than 10 pages (also known as two sentences by William Faulkner), allow me to clarify that I read my fair share of novels and other hefty texts during my younger days.
But most of that was required reading.
As much as I love the version of my childhood in which I tucked myself away in some secret nook of my house to read Little Women for the sixth time, in which I used every bit of my allowance each week to acquire yet more and more titles at the used bookstore, that is a bit of revisionist history. I dutifully (if not a little begrudgingly) read what I was assigned by my teachers … and pretty much only what I was assigned. And so it went through middle and high school and college, too.
Then I got my diploma and also my freedom from syllabuses telling me what and when to read. Books were no longer a mandate but a choice.
I let months at a time pass before even flipping through a paperback. The same Jon Krakauer tome sat on my nightstand untouched for more than a year (except for when I dusted it, of course. Nope, that’s revisionist history again. It went completely untouched.) I relegated “reading novels” to the category of once-obligatory tasks that I forsook in my post-collegiate, quasi-grown-up epoch. Books had become tantamount to broccoli, and I wasn’t subjecting myself to either.
And I might still be living in a world devoid of the gratification that can come with reading a book of one’s own free will were it not for a big move I made a few years ago.
After years of using a car to get me to and from work and nearly everywhere else, I suddenly was living in New York City and relying solely on public transportation. I soon learned by observing my fellow subway passengers that there were a few options for passing the time on the train, as follows:
- Option No. 1: Play a game on your smart phone while pretending not to notice the man sitting across from you cutting his nails and leaving the clippings on the seat
- Option No. 2: Read something while pretending not to notice the man sitting across from you cutting his nails and leaving the clippings on his seat
- Option No. 3: Cut your nails and leave the clippings on the seat
Partly because I longed to recreate the tableau of “person completely engrossed in book and looking very intelligent” that I often saw on the train, and partly because an unfortunate nail-biting habit has left me without the need for nail clippers since age 8, I opted for No. 2. I signed up for a library card, started frequenting bookstores, and made it a goal to always have a novel or some other worthwhile reading material in my purse. And so it was that I began reading nearly every day.
Rather quickly, a beautiful thing happened. After years of believing that I lacked a zeal for fiction—that due to some iteration of my genes I was born without a passion for reading, just like I was born without wisdom teeth—I fell in love with books. Classics, new releases, Pulitzer Prize-winners, trifling fluff—these kept me company each morning and evening as I learned the art of turning a page and holding a book with one hand while the other grasped a subway pole.
Soon, my reading was not limited to the hour I spent on the subway each day. I was also making my way through chapters during lunch breaks and before bed and on lazy weekend mornings, too. Within a year of relocating to the city, I had read nearly 40 books—certainly more than the total of all that I had read since graduating from college years earlier.
For me, it took a disruption to my daily routine to help me realize that, deep-down, I was a book lover. (It also helped that I moved to a city so expensive that one of the only activities I could actually afford was reading.) I will be forever grateful to New York for teaching me—among so many other things—that I am, in fact, someone who enjoys reading.
My name is Jill, and I am an adult-onset reader.
Were you born with a book in your hand, or are you an adult-onset reader?