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There is always a book and notebook nearby. Always has been. In kindergarten, I brought a notebook to school every day, eager to write, until finally in April, the teacher told me to stop bringing it: writing wasn’t until first grade. Then, in first grade, I got in trouble in reading circle for ‘reading ahead’ but I was engrossed: Would Sally give Dan the ball? When Dan said, Go, Sally, run fast, would she?
Who knows what makes a reader or writer? For me, much of it is cellular: as a child, I read early and often. I do not know a time when I didn’t read. My best moments with my mother were when she read to me—she, a depressive who spent much time in bed, smelling of lotion, her freckled hand holding the book open, and explaining to me what a moor was and why English children walked on them. I carried a book everywhere and learned to read under my desk in school, under the table at dinner, while walking, while in a tree. In fifth grade, I started my first novel, about a girl who ran away from home.
At home, things weren’t so good. My father was dying, my mother a fragile and self-centered creature who never did much see beyond her own needs. But the library was two blocks from our house and I spent hours there. My mother took me to the bookstore anytime I wanted, the only rule being that I had to buy really big books that would last me at least a couple days, which was her way of trying to make my reading habits slightly more cost-effective.
In time, books became a kind of surrogate parent to me. Harriet the Spy taught me to observe, that adults lead private, interesting lives. In high school, I read Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and came away with, “Follow your inclinations with due regard to the policeman round the corner,” which was about the best advice I ever had and kept me out of some trouble in high school. When, at seventeen, I read Jack Kerouac’s line from On the Road –“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”–I found the courage to go to Columbia University instead of the University of Texas, and I knew then that I’d never go home and would have to make my own place in the world.
I go to museums, dance and music performances, and plays, but the thing about them is, you have to go. The ballerinas and oil paintings aren’t there for you in the middle of a sleepless night, or next to the sofa on a snowy afternoon. So much art is a public thing: you stand or sit with others, taking it in. Reading and writing are unique among the arts because like nothing else, we are both alone and together with the voices of other. We read and write to become fully human in the way that only we can—through language.
Why were books and stories so important? When did it become important to set down impressions of my own life, to make up stories about other people, to write about things I don’t understand? These are impossible questions to answer: Why do we love who and what we love? The answers really only mask the mysteries temporarily.
But perhaps this, from Vladimir Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory:
I see again my schoolroom in Vyra, the blue roses of the wallpaper, the open window. Its reflection fills the oval mirror above the leathern couch where my uncle sits, gloating over a tattered book. A sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth pervades my memory. That robust reality makes a ghost of the present. The mirror brims with brightness; a bumblebee has entered the room and bumps against the ceiling. Everything is as it should be, nothing will ever change, nobody will ever die.
Emily Sinclair is a fiction writer and essayist. She serves on the faculty at Lighthouse.
This post is part of our Lit Matters series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts is meaningful to them. Lit Matters stories will be posted throughout the month of November, leading up to Colorado Gives Day on December 9. Mark your calendar for Colorado Gives Day or schedule your gift now. Thank you!