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Why Do I Read?

I guess you might as well ask, why do I breathe? Yeah, I know, it’s a little melodramatic but pretty much true. I’ve always maintained that books saved my life (that’s for another blog) and I’ve had at least three or four going since the day I learned to read. I actually still remember the magical moment when I realized I could read the words on the page. It was from a book that my mother read to me. And now, I could read it. The whole world opened up to me.

I haven’t stopped since. I’m perfectly down with being labeled a bookworm. I guess the label fits. I’ll read anything, anywhere. I read in the shower, in the car, in the kitchen while fixing pancakes, in my office, in bed, in the pool, on a park bench, on trains, planes, subways and funiculars … well, you get the idea.

And I will read anything rather than sit idle with no words in front of me. I’ve always been utterly baffled by people you see in doctors’ offices just sitting, staring into space. I mean, what exactly are they doing? You don’t bring a book, pick up a magazine? On a few occasions, when desperate, I’ve been known to read the labels on toothpaste tubes. (Hey, don’t judge, we all have our peccadilloes).

Ironically, I grew up in a household with an aggressive non-reader. My mother frowned on the fact that I always had a book in front of my face. Well-meaning but unfortunately kind of a pre-Kardashian wannabe, she actually thought I should spend more time on my hair and makeup. This was all lost on me. I actually lied about my whereabouts so I could sneak off to the library. I later learned that this destination was the fabrication cooler kids used to get out of the house to go to concerts or parties. I lied to go to the library.

And here’s what I discovered there. To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout; Lad a Dog; the power of Tolstoy; the poetry of Shakespeare; lots and lots of trashy novels; the dark sexy world of Anne Rice’s vampires; countless works of fiction that held my interest for hours; fascinating civil war stories; biographies of writers and politicians and historians; the romantic, tragic mess that was F. Scott Fitzgerald; all of the novels of George Orwell; string theory (still don’t get that); the wit and bite of Alexander Pope; wonderful tales of our Founding Fathers; the amazing prose of Rick Bragg, who paints pictures with words; stories of exotic faraway places like Thailand, Bora Bora and New Zealand; the romantic and iconic Plaza Hotel; Ulysses (yikes!); an army of philosophers and playwrights; the humor and wisdom of P.J. O’Rourke. In short, the world and everything in it. Right at my fingertips.

I guess I bring this up now because we seem to be living in an age, despite the limitless content on the web, where reading has kind of gone by the wayside. I don’t mean skimming headlines. I don’t mean reading memes on Facebook. I mean actual reading. I mean a whole book, something longer than 140 characters. The utter pleasure of sitting down with 450 pages of prose.

I’ll come back to Tolstoy here for a moment (partly because he is my favorite author for the pure pleasure of reading and partly because he told that idiot tzar to free the surfs). He’s kind of a joke in today’s world because his works are a bit long. If you say you’re sitting quietly by the fire reading Anna Karenina you get kind, but concerned responses from friends like, “Oh dear, shall I come over?” Or, “Are you depressed?”

But what’s to fear of many words if they are stunning? If they are provocative and inspiring?

Maybe in this world of social media, we’re all losing our ability to concentrate for more than 30 seconds. Well, I refuse. I will not go gentle into that good night — at least not without a book in my hand.

This blog wasn’t meant as anything more than a homage to reading and the lifetime of pleasure, adventure and enlightenment that it offers. In this age of Facebook and Twitter, I say: Pick up a book and revel in what’s between the pages.

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