Sunday, March 20, 2016

My Love Affair with Books

I wasn't always an avid reader. As a child and a young teen, the only time I cracked open a book was when my brother and I misbehaved, since, as punishment, our mother would force us to memorize specific chapters from the book of Psalms. Books in our home were shelf decor, neither springboards for the imagination nor educational resources. My scant reading meant poor reading skills which in turn meant scant reading. This vicious cycle kept me away from books and in front of the cathode ray.

School was no different. Because I abhorred the public school environment, I resisted instruction. And not applying myself meant consequently learning next to nothing. It wasn't until after high school that I realized it wasn't knowledge I despised but the imposed regimen, a regimen that determined precisely when and what to memorize.

This attitude changed when I turned eighteen. Eligible to vote and registered for selective service, I took inventory of my ignorance under the tutelage of the public school system and discovered I was, intellectually speaking, an idiot.

Meanwhile, I'd listened to the vague declarations of friends and family on the political and religious hot button issues of the day – animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, God. While intrigued, I remained clueless about how to make sense of it all. I wasn't about to oblige popular opinion for the sake of acceptance or validation any more than I'd take an opposing stance merely to appear independent.

Instead, I wanted to know on what basis one position was more reasonable or legitimate than another. Unfortunately, neither friends, family, nor the clergy were much help. Despite their convictions, these people appeared to have never explored these issues beyond casual conversations among those with whom they already agreed. 

Though I couldn't have articulated my dilemma at the time, I sought an assurance beyond the flippant proclamations and bumper sticker slogans of my peers and elders, a method or a criterion with which to gauge the merits of a claim to determine which position offered the most rational thesis. 

Then, either nineteen or twenty, at a mutual friend's birthday party, I met a man nearly a decade my senior who, over the course of a pointed interaction, demonstrated such an exacting, sober, insightful method for making sense of things that I was both encouraged and thrilled.

We shared some common interests and were soon meeting for lunch. In no time I discovered I had little more to offer than my rugged good looks, overly inquisitive nature, and self contradictions. He, instead of dismissing me for the fool I was and recommending I go play in traffic, listened to my conundrum. Once he'd casually dissected what at first blush appeared complicated until it rendered up its secrets, I had to know his method. But, God bless him, rather than telling me what ideology to adopt, he pointed me to the writing material that addressed my questions – newspaper columns, magazine articles, and essays on a host of political and philosophical issues we'd discussed, both for and against a given subject. I was curious enough to bite, and it’s with a proud heart, a moist cheek, and a bruised ego that I confess his passive prompting led me to embark on a life-altering journey for which I remain eternally grateful.

What began as modest curiosity blossomed into an insatiable inquisitiveness. I found myself engaged in a fierce race toward that elusive prize known as illumination. I still recall, in my twenties, moistening my pupils with Visine to combat my sore, dry eyes, and popping Bayer or Bufferin tablets as though they were Flintstones Chewables to minimize the headaches, all the while sitting up in bed under the buttery glow of lamplight reading until dawn.

I’d become the solitary bibliophile, having embarked on an ambitious journey I’d privately dubbed Making Up For Lost Time. Soon my self-imposed reading marathons became what might best be described as an epistemological pilgrimage. In a year, I'd assumed the title autodidact, an amateur scholar whose only stipend was the occasional pearl of wisdom gleaned from the printed word. Consequently, I'd graduated from articles and essays to books on general, religious, political, and moral philosophy as if my soul depended on it.

In this way I learned first hand what can never be communicated to the passive reader, namely that the written word is the only medium offering the best opportunity for providing a measured, exhaustive examination of anything, the only encompassing process for engaging one's imagination, encouraging one's thoughts, and fully evoking one's emotions.

Within roughly six years, not only had I more than compensated for my previous academic career of indifference in the public school system, I’d discovered an exciting literary world that reduced all other forms of entertainment to table scraps. For me, the public libraries and bookstores had become the consummation of humanity’s crowning achievements – enshrining our noblest thoughts, our deepest insights, and our most enduring creations.

Yet like any adventurer embarked on an expedition of discovery, I often felt alone, sometimes with little more than guilt to spur me onward, guilt over my earlier years of academic neglect. 

Over time this immersion into literature fostered an ugly contempt for my contemporaries. I confess I grew alienated from most of my friends and family. They were preoccupied with pop culture. I wasn't. As adults, they spent as much time watching TV as I had as a teen. I gradually grew to detest television and treated friends and family, depending on my mood, with either pity or scorn. 

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t as if I pined for a metropolis where everyone took a sledgehammer to their flat screens, visited museums, and liberally quoted Oscar Wilde. Unlike the vegetarian who decides her friends are going to Hell for eating animals, I didn't consider my coevals damned, but I knew they were not only missing out on one of life's greatest pursuits and pleasures, they were depriving themselves of what really mattered – knowledge, insight, clarity of thought. 

This heartache tainted my joy when I considered the suspicion my passion for reading provoked in others. Unless I was willing to endure a summary of their diet or what happened during the most recent season of their favorite TV show, material for conversation became increasingly limited. And those who viewed my pursuits with indifference, who showed no interest for my passion, caused me to only recede further into my solitude and study. But I couldn't abandon my passion for books any more than a lover can deny love. Because, truly, at this point, my love for language, for clear expression, knew no equal.

The relationship between writer and reader, the gratification that comes from glimpsing, and, dare I say, occasionally comprehending, an idea or a truth, remains my dharma. Fellow avid readers know. Even in a crowded coffeehouse, we read (for all practical purposes) alone. And though music and other ambient sounds might attend our immersion, in this self-imposed cell of solitary confinement, our minds and thoughts are focused. 

What we grasp as a result can seldom be communicated. In turn, we learn how far superior this medium is to all other forms for conveying unforgettable stories and any ideology worth thinking or talking about. To weigh and explore the innermost thoughts and feelings of some of the brightest minds articulating their imagination and purpose in print knows no equal. 

Today my fidelity to books has given me a greater appreciation for the things these books reveal, and this has made meaningful to me ideas as well as virtues I might never have otherwise considered significant or relevant.

Someone once wrote that books are the only things you can buy that make you richer. Books, for me at least, are the most treasured of inanimate objects. What words convey and stir in the hearts of readers confirms their power and their impact. I'll always regard them, or more specifically their authors, as the best storytellers, priests, sages, and guides. They continue to provide insight and pleasure I'll forever cherish.

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