Becoming a Reader

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Becoming a Reader by Eva Strelitz-Block - Photo by Aliza Abusch-Magder

For me, as for most of us, the small achievements and progressions that comprise our journey toward adulthood become most apparent in the rearview window. One day is not so different from the previous one, but, with a start we realize, “I guess it’s not so hard to ride a bike!” Or, “huh, I’ve been making my own lunch all year!” Occasionally, our transformations catch and startle us in the moment. We see the becoming, and it’s sweet and surprising. There’s also sadness there—a kind of anticipatory, bittersweet nostalgia; we recognize what we are leaving behind, even as we emerge into a new beginning.

When I was little, one of my very favorite places to visit was the library. It was our thing, my mom and I, and later my brother, too: every Sunday, rain or shine, with eager anticipation, we would make the trip downtown to the exciting and intimidating flagship downtown library to borrow books for the week. We would spend hours searching through the shelves of children’s books. I’d pick out the picture books with the prettiest colors, and my mom would select the stories she thought my brother and I would find compelling. As I grew older, I graduated to selecting books from the “big kids” stacks; I read the Junie B. Jones series, the saucy kindergartner with grownup-level moxie, every Nancy Drew book I could find, and all the volumes of the Babysitters Club. I think it was somewhere in the midst of that series that I began to feel like more of a big-girl reader; the hints of romance, secrets, and friendship drama felt grownup.

Then it was on to more bona fide young-adult novels—The Hunger Games and Anna and the French Kiss. I dwelled in that genre, YA, for a long time. I read YA murder mysteries and teen love stories, historical fiction and dystopian adventure dramas, as well as the occasional memoir and biography.

Looking back now, I see how important all of this early reading material was to my personal growth. Its breadth gave range to my thinking; it sparked my curiosity about people and ideas and showed me different ways of thinking about the challenges I might encounter and the social problems we all face.

Of course eventually, I became bored with this YA fare and weary of the same old plot formulas, dilemmas, and conflicts. The transition I was undergoing as a reader, the moment of becoming, emerged with clarity one day when my mom and I, armed with a few gift cards, made a trip to Book People, our local independent bookstore. As usual, I felt the same excitement I always feel whenever I walk into a bookstore: my senses tuned to the smell of untouched paper, the sound of papers turning, the quiet murmur of conversation. But when the time came to peruse the shelves for my choice, instead of heading up the stairs to the YA area, I followed my mom to the “adult” fiction shelves.

It felt intimidating at first, this disavowal of teen fiction, with its cozy and welcoming bean bags and the reassuring presence of the same books lining the shelves visit after visit. I realized that I had conclusively ended my literary liaison with the kids’ sections and begun the next phase of my relationship with books. (My mom says not to burn any bridges—she still likes the occasional YA book herself.)

This passage, that moment of realization that I had become an adult reader, also marked an ending of sorts to my childhood. In moving away from reading the same, comforting narratives, which approach the usual concerns from invariably similar and comfortable (challenging, but not too challenging) perspectives, and toward exploring messier, more intense, provocative experiences, I was signaling my readiness to welcome additional complexity into my life. Even when it unsettles me. Perhaps because it unsettles me.

Still, there is a thread of continuity that remains. I am a reader. I come from a family of readers. Reading has been fundamental to not only the growth of my vocabulary and intellect, but also to the creation of my worldview. Now, my mom and I read the same books. We discuss them with each other and make recommendations. Like going to the library every Sunday, our book chats have become our new “thing.” One of my favorite childhood memories is of “family reading time.” My brother, mom, dad, and I would snuggle up in my parents’ bed and read separately, but together, until past my bedtime. I still read for pleasure—although Netflix has definitely put a dent into my reading time. Enjoying activities together, but separately: there it is again, another becoming.

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