When I was in about 8 or 9 years old, I distinctly remember reading while eating at the dinner table.
My mother would complain that I wasn’t participating in dinner, and I would block her out and continue peeking at my book under the table while everyone else talked over the food. I wasn’t being anti-social; I was just having so much fun living between the pages of my books.
I was a voracious reader from a young age. I don’t remember exactly when I could start reading on my own but I do know that books inspired me from a very young age. At ten, I thought that if Robinson Crusoe could create his own colony on a desert Island I could damn well create my own language. And I did. I made a pocket sized dictionary sewn together from torn-out notebook pages and filled it with gibberish words that sounded perfectly reasonable to me. Next to each new word I created was its English equivalent; a new red word against the old in blue. A few of my friends caught on to my language and we quickly became ‘the group that speaks the strange language’. When speaking strange became too much of a hassle, we abandoned that hobby and took up detective work inspired by the works of ‘The Secret Seven’ and ‘The Hardy Brothers’. We never really uncovered anything spectacular but the idea of replicating adventures as exciting as our beloved fictional characters made us feel bold and brave. As long as we had a steady supply of books, our minds stayed curious. In the days before handheld devices and social media, books kept my friends and I endlessly entertained.
As I grew older, my questions grew more complicated.
Where do babies come from?
What is beyond the sky?
What is ‘politics’?
Why do people die?
Where is God?
Why do we suffer?
Why do we love the people that we love?
Who am I?
I turned to books to find the answers.
In my late teens, a certain book on my father’s bookshelf caught my eye. Narrated in the third person, it spun a fascinating tapestry of life in neo-colonial Cairo. It spoke of love, betrayal, poverty, and fate. Its heroin, Hamida, was a character I both admired and loathed. Once I picked up the book, I devoured it greedily. Midaq Alley was the beginning of my lifelong affair with African and Islamic literature.
When I was in my late twenties, I was in the middle of a messy divorce and life, as I had known it for the past two decades, no longer made sense. I was almost newly single and separated from my children, and this new identity shook me to my core. If marriage was such a messy institution, why do we have it in the first place? Why not just cohabitate and say ‘adios!’ when the union no longer serves our mutual interests? Torn by anger at myself, my ex, and the administrators of marriages and divorces, I reached for Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Committed’ and read it in the back seat of my brother’s SUV as my brother, sister-in-law, and I cruised down Colorado’s majestic country roads. The entire trip was a salve to my broken soul. We hiked up a small hill and took pictures under a gentle waterfall near the peak. We had the best seafood soup I’ve ever had in my life at a little Mexican restaurant in the middle of nowhere. We laughed. We allowed each other silence, each person meditating in their own sacred silences. By the end of the day, the pink sunset sky was on my left and a few stars were beginning to twinkle through the top of the sunroof. I was nearing the end of the book and I was in tears, hugging the paperback the same way I would hug my mother.
Hope was still alive.
Ms. Gilbert was right- I did move past that ordeal and I did turn out fine.
I’m in my thirties now and I am more enthusiastic about books than I have ever been in my life. Even with the demands of raising small children, working, and running a very active charity, I still make time to read. I mostly read on the train, that self-indulgent one hour between home and work, or at night, when the rest of the family is asleep. I love reading to my children at bedtime and I get as much pleasure from reading to them as they do from listening to me read. Occasionally, I also read to my husband to help him fall asleep. I don’t have to read, I choose to read. Or better yet, I want to read. The truth is, reading is as natural to me as breathing. Books are my faithful companions. They help explain the world to me. They offer a different opinion from my own. They challenge me and nourish me. Books are my home.