When Sola gets Anna-Catherine’s journal, she says that it’s torture to wait until the children are in bed, so she can dive back into the story. This describes my childhood. I can remember my third-grade teacher taking our class to the school library once a week. She made the rule that as soon as we were finished with our “paperwork,” we could read our library books. The assumption was that we would diligently slog our way through worksheets about community helpers, state capitals, or whatever, and then quietly occupy ourselves with reading until she was ready to move on to the next subject.
Her system worked overly well in my case. I raced through each worksheet, putting any old answer in the blanks, so I could dive back into my book. In consequence, I learned very little about math, geography, social studies, or science during the third grade.
At first, I favored books with magical realism like Edward Eager’s Half Magic, or Betty MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, but I soon ventured into historical fiction. I devoured Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. Then, as I grew older, I started stalking my father’s books. As soon as he finished one, he would stash it inside the hidden compartment of his footstool, and I would steal it back out. Finally, when I was eleven, he actually handed me one. “You should read this,” he said. The book was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and it rocked my world.
The first thing that impressed my eleven-year-old mind was the eccentricity of the characters, and their quirky, wonderful names–Dill, Atticus, Boo Radley, and Calpurnia. I can’t say that I understood all the subtleties of the plot, but it was the first book that mesmerized me enough to give it a “double-read.” As soon as I finished the last page, I turned it over and started again. Gradually, I grasped the larger themes of racism and abuse, and I was also fascinated by the way each character told a sub-story, embodying compassion, courage, generosity, and dignity.
Over the years, my obsession with reading has served me well. Not all of my reading falls into lofty categories. Sometimes I need to take a break and relax my mind, to escape and re-group. The year and a half that I spent in Tehran was such a time. It was a city filled with tension, and the whispers of the coming revolution were not far away. I found solace inside the British library, where a room full of classics was outfitted with cozy chairs. While snow fell on the city, and the Shah and Richard Nixon fell from grace, I made friends with Charles Dickens, W. Somerset Maugham, and P.G. Wodehouse. Finer companions cannot be found!