In my late teens and in my 20s, I read book after book. I always had a book in my purse or backpack, sometimes two, just in case I had even a few minutes to myself, whether I was on the subway, the LIRR, the El, or the Metro, or waiting to meet a friend at a cafe or a street corner. When I was working, I protected my lunch hours so that I could skip out to a deli or a cafe to read a book while gulping down my lunch. And I always picked a place where I had no risk of running into someone from my office who might want to chit chat and cut into my valuable time.
I plowed through about a book or two a week. I didn't necessarily read for pleasure, even though I often enjoyed them very much. I also didn't read to escape, as some of my friends did. I read out of desperation. I thought these books could show me how to live my life -- or more precisely, how not to screw up. Mostly, by way of example, by illustrating how others lived theirs -- and what they did right or didn't. I read in search of instruction manuals.
I also read out of fear. Our family moved from Korea to the US when I was eight. During our first few years here, I was often struck by the differences between our way of living and those who lived here. Also, by the different way we saw things. And how some of them failed to understand us -- and yet had no idea how limited their perspective was. As I grew older -- and became more "Americanized" and identified less with the Korean way of being -- I started to fear turning into one of those people, those who only knew their way of living and understood so little of others'. Books punctured through my own protected bubble and opened windows into other, much larger worlds.
I often read the same books twice. First a quick read - more than a skim but still a passive take, and then once I got the big picture, back to page one to digest more carefully, thoroughly. I sometimes underlined the sentences that resonated with me. Often those sentences had nothing to do with the main theme of the book, but to me they were little nuggets of truth that felt truer because somebody else had written them down. And after I finished, I neatly lined up the books on my bookshelf, as proof of my growth and improvement.
I often gravitated towards literature and memoirs. For memoirs, usually those written by someone on the outside, whether African American, Jewish-American, or some kind of survivor, and everything I could find by Asian-Americans. At the end of those books, those writers felt like personal friends, with whom I'd had intimate conversations.
I am not an extravagant person, but with books, I did not limit myself. I grabbed whatever caught my eye, often purchasing a pile of books at a time. I had every intention of reading them all, even though I usually ran out of time before another pile of books caught my attention. As a result, I have more unread books than read, especially since after reading, I immediately donate books I feel do not merit shelf space.
When we moved to San Diego a couple of years ago, we did not unpack most of our belongings since we were not sure whether we would stay here for good. When we finally decided to stay, we still did not unpack since we are currently in a rental and plan to buy a house. During that time, my books have been trapped in boxes. A couple of times, I have gone through some of those boxes looking for one or two particular books that stuck in my head -- although it would been easier simply to check it out from the library or order a new copy from Amazon. But most of the time, they have remained in their boxes, marked "S's books - Read" or "S's books - Unread." The other day, I had a moment of panic fearing that they are all growing moldy.
I recently caught up with a friend from my first job out of college. She asked me what I've been reading -- and I found myself reporting that I had read less than three or four books in the last several years. What an awful record. But I feel less desperate about reading these days. Perhaps because I don't assume others know more than I do, although they often do. And perhaps because I am getting set in my ways.
But I still miss my books. And I miss having time to read. Jeff called me a "book hugger" the other day, just because I forbid him from dog-earing my books and cringe when a book is bent at the spine. I teach my children not to step on books, just the way we were taught. And I want to instill in them a love of learning, because I believe that to be the most important tool we have for finding our way in the world. But I don't think there is much for me to do, because they were born with an innate curiosity, an eagerness to learn.
I look forward to the day when I can sit with my children, each of us with our own age appropriate books in hand. But for now, reading is a group activity. We huddle together on the couch next to a big pile of board books, my face pressed against their warm, soft cheeks, our eyes locked on the hungry little caterpillar.