“But luxury has never appealed to me, I like simple things, books, being alone, or with somebody who understands.”
–Daphne du Maurier
I smiled quietly as my friends joked and chattered. In our tiny “small group” room, a couple of us were sprawled on the hard floor, a few lounged on the worn couches, and one swung in the rope chair that hung from the ceiling. The lights were dim; we preferred Christmas lights. The leader of our church’s small group passed out shiny new hardcover books; this is what we would be reading and studying this year. Suddenly, one of my friends piped up, “I haven’t read a book in over a year!” I felt my feelings crowd in my chest. My sense of pride in books was almost wounded. After all, wasn’t my friend in high school? Even if she did not read for pleasure, surely she would have had to read for school? Spak-notes. Winging assignments. Never reading. Although no one knew it, my loyalties were in a raging battle. My closest friends were at odds: people and books.
• • •
The mystery of conversation has never opened its door to me. Knowing the right thing to say, simply to hold a conversation, has never come easily to me. Lavishly gaining attention through questions, jokes, or small talk has never appealed to me. I was a quiet child. I am a quiet young woman. Ironically, I love words.
Shelves and shelves. The shrines of my earliest remembrances. In my bubble-gum-pink bedroom, a shelf from floor to ceiling, and a shelf short and wide were full to the brim with books. When I was young these books were large and floppy story books, usually with more illustrations than words. Yet nothing pleased me more than to carefully select a couple and plop in the corner of my room. Just me and the books.
Words rolled off the pages and danced vividly in my mind, making me eager to take part in their wonderful swing. Often, I would journey out of the harbor of my bedroom in order to retrieve printer paper, pens, and markers. Time trickled effortlessly by as I scrutinized my books, my hand slowly dragging my pen across my paper. Carefully, I transferred the words over to my own paper, sometimes copying illustrations, or adding my own. Shyly, but proudly, I presented my works for my mother’s approval. She would respond with a cliché “Wow, that is amazing!” I could always tell she wondered why I spent my time doing this. Medieval times were over, why was I toiling like a scribe? Nevertheless, I continued.
I craved the company of books. It delighted me to grasp their cover and thumb through the pages. They were ever-present, even when friends and family were busy. I read for comfort, for companionship, for a friend. Books didn’t mind that I was quiet and rarely expressed opinions or discussed topics. As a child, I was simply in a consumer friendship with my books, but my relationship with literature would soon blossom.
• • •
“The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.”
One Autumn morning, I went to the shelf as I had so often done before. I was 10 years old. I carefully scoured the shelf. Yes, I was judging the books by their cover. My gaze landed on a small, but decent-sized book. The cover was decorated with a train, from which red bubbles of smoke were being pumped. At the top, in large sprawling letters: Agatha Christie. “The Queen of Mystery.” I mused, “How was she that important?” I slid Murder on the Orient Express off the shelf, and wandered into the kitchen for breakfast. As usual, my company was my book.
I turned pages to the first chapter. I dove right in. “Mon cher,” “M. Hercule Poirot,” “comme ça.” To my dismay, my young mind could not wrap itself around the French words. My mental voice tripped over the pronunciation. “Pwoir-row” became “Pour-rot,” with the final “t” hard as ice. I was frustrated. To my extreme discomfort, I had to interrupt my reading constantly to ask what words meant. I gave up. I closed the cover. My stubborn personality had been rubbed raw by the book. In my eyes, my friend had betrayed me.
While I had been anguishing in my frustration, my older brother, who had his own book to read, had been sitting next to me. Patiently, he had answered my questions. After I had exhausted my mental perseverance and was making moves to leave, my brother picked up the book. Then he started to read.
He read to me the entire day. Morning till night. As we chugged through Murder on the Orient Express, we only stopped to move to the couch or grab lunch. Though I often still asked for explanations and definitions, the book made sense. Not only did it make sense, but it was ingeniously crafted. I was blissful.
The trial was over. My friendship remained. My brother had acted as the compassionate mediator.
The mystery of books was solved. With a little help from the ingenious Poirot, I had found the key to my own personalized type of conversation with my friend. A silent conversation. A dialogue where my mind conversed with the words on the page. What would I do in that situation? How did a character arrive at a decision? What themes were relatable to my life?
• • •
“…but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.”
The stacks of Agatha Christie books always remained at least a foot high for months. I would finish two to three a week. Now, I had opinions and tastes in literature. My loyalty remained strong for the Queen of Mystery, but my friendship with books required more. I dove into Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, reading practically everything they wrote. Charles Dickens opened a whole new world. My hands almost never lost contact with The Count of Monte Cristo and Rebecca. I was hungry. I was happy.
Before I knew it, I had a circle of deep friends. Some made me laugh, others were excellent at giving me advice. Most importantly, each one retained the genuine essence of the pleasant hours we had spent together.
My church friends still hold my deep affection, and each moment circled up, reading together, is a joy that combines my love of books and friends. I appreciate the girls’ quirks and unique personalities which always challenge me to notice the blessings of individuality. Yet they make me realize the fulfillment I have gained in literature. My friends may think me odd for savoring my books, or may gape at the thickness of Vanity Fair, which rests on my nightstand. But my books have taught me more than hours of conversation could ever achieve.
It is often said that who you spend your time with always influences you. My friendship with books has given me empathy; I treasure how each book gives me esteem for knowledge and for the value of people. Books may not have transformed me into an effusive conversationalist, but they have changed me for the better.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.