I love books. I always have, at least as far back as I can remember. An old book is, for me, like an old friend. It’s always there, waiting on the shelf for the day when I take it out again and thumb through its familiar pages. The texture and scent of the pages, the weight and shape of the book, how its spine bends and folds into the palm of my hand, whether previous readers have written obscure notes in the margins or folded the corners of the pages over, or whether it is a brand new book that no one else has ever read before . . . all of these influence my experience of the story contained within the pages.
As I read once again an old favourite that I have read many times before, the story shapes itself around me, the same and yet different every time. I am older, and living in a different place (either actually or metaphorically) than when I first read the book, and I notice things that I did not notice in earlier readings. A book read when I was younger than the characters in the story takes on an altogether different flavour when read many years later when I am older than the characters. Some books, when read a second or third time, seem faded, a shadow of what they were on the first reading. Yet other books seems brighter each time I read them, with every reading becoming richer and more multi-layered. It is these books that are the friends for life and that will always have a place on my shelves.
Reading is discovery. One book inevitably leads to more books – other books in that genre or by that author, books with similar settings and subjects, books that the author read and recommended, books listed in a bibliography or quoted in epigraphs. Eventually, I find myself reading books about books, and I discover that I am not alone in my love for books. I keep reading new books, but the number of books on my list of books I want to read never goes down. That is a good thing. I will never run out.
Reading is community – despite the fact that reading is usually considered a solitary activity. Reading a book connects me with both the author of the story and even more with all of the other readers who have read and been a part of that story over the years. Stories break down the barriers between “you” and “me”, between “them” and “us”. Reading, we discover that our own story is not that different from anyone else’s story after all. Reading, we discover that even characters from vastly different cultures, times, and worlds than our own have more in common with us than we might have thought.
Finally, reading is transformation. When I read a book, I become the characters. I struggle over mountains and rivers, and through blizzards and deserts with them. I laugh and love and cry with them. I feel their joy and their pain. If it is a good book, it doesn’t end when I finish the story and close the covers. It stays with me. I carry a piece of the characters’ lives with me for the rest of my life, and, when I look up at the end of the book, I am no longer the same person who began it.
The characters in books are all real, because they are me, and they are you. Every story, told by an author who believes in it, is true. All stories are one story told in a countless number of ways, and, when we read, we remember that, if only for a moment.