This is an essay by Jeffery Cohen.
Reading in the beginning
When I was a boy, I was in love with reading. It was like a miracle to me. I marveled at how a collection of simple letters formed words. Those words brought me colors and tastes and smells. Those words carried me to places I’d never been and introduced me to characters I’d never expected to meet in a million years —sorcerers, kings, generals, talking animals. Reading was magical!
While other kids in the neighborhood flipped a football back and forth, I flipped through the pages of Mark Twain’s ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’. As my friends scaled the twisted boughs of knotted trees, I climbed the stacks of walled volumes at the library in search of a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island’ or Mark Twain’s ‘Tom Sawyer’. While kids carried around shoe boxes of baseball cards, I carried ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ in a bookbag. The little gray industrial town where I was raised couldn’t keep me from foreign shores and exotic places as long as there were words and books to take me there.
I don’t recall my father or mother ever picking up a book, but they faithfully read the newspaper, cover to cover, daily. In our living room, a line of bound classics gathered dust — a testament to a fast talking book salesman who had conned my mother into buying something she would never use. She was elated when I began to comb through their brittle pages.
Gargoyles materialized atop a cathedral as I struggled to understand the words of Victor Hugo’s ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’. I tasted the dust of the chariots of Wallace’s ‘Ben Hur’ and came under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe. ‘The Telltale Heart’ pounded under the floorboards of my bedroom. I heard the tapping of a raven’s beak at my window.
I read my way into my teens. Before love ever came to me, I eavesdropped on the whispers that Shakespeare lent to Romeo and Juliet. I stood knee deep in fields of heather, watching Heathcliff embrace Cathy as he pledged himself. Verses from Shelley and Keats lifted my heart. Ogden Nash made me laugh. Allen Ginsburg made me cry. J.D. Salinger asked me to wonder who I was. Jack Kerouac set me on the road to find out.
Time flies, change happens
Days flew by. High school ended as quickly as it began. Then came college, a job search, new people, new friends. Life flashed like lightning. Todays became yesterdays. Familiar faces faded into distant memories. Dreams vaporized, and I found myself working for a living, buying a house, starting a family. The routine of living led me down roads I’d never planned to travel. Time and books began to slip away.
I would start a book, slide a bookmark between its pages, and promise myself that I’d pick up where I had left off. Weeks would go by, and the book remained unopened. After a while, I would forget just where I’d left it. The happiness I’d felt from reading became a distant memory as the years piled on. I’m not sure I ever consciously realized that I had stopped reading. It just happened. One day, books were no longer a part of my life.
A couple of years ago, I decided to take a writing class. One of my classmates was a voracious reader. She was never without a book. You could see by the way she handled books, the way she held them, the way she turned their pages, that she respected and adored books. Her face glowed when she recounted the storyline of the latest volume in her possession. She spoke of the characters as though they were personal friends. She ate and slept books. She danced with them, sang with them, laughed with them. I wanted to feel what she felt. I wanted to read again.
I began by asking for a recommendation.
“Why don’t you try this one,” she smiled and handed me a copy of ‘Bel Canto.’ “Be patient with it,” she whispered. “It’s worth it.”
How right she was. My senses came alive as the words rekindled my imagination. I blew through it in days, hungry for another. My friend supplied me with a book list. One after the other, I devoured pages like a starving man. ‘The Road’, ‘The Sparrow’, Black Water’, ‘The Poisonwood Bible’, ‘The Remains of the Day.’ With an endless stream of stories to discover came a peace and satisfaction I had forgotten long ago.
In an age of electronics, computers, chiming cell phones, and blasting tunes, I have rediscovered quiet — that delicious feeling of being alone with a book without distractions. I find myself not wanting to put a book down. And when I have to, I can’t wait to pick it up again. Now, when I reach the final chapters of a book, I begin to get nervous if I don’t have a new one to take its place. For me, the joy of reading has returned tenfold. Over the years, reading has taught me so many lessons. But the greatest lesson of all is that it’s never too late to open a book!
Jeffery Cohen, a freelance writer, painter, and sculptor, wrote a weekly newspaper humor column for six years. His work has appeared inSasee Magazine. He was a finalist in the 2011 Women-On-Writing Flash Fiction Contest, he won second place in Vocabula’s 2011 Well Written Writing Contest and placed second in the National League of American Pen Womens’ 2011 Soul Making Literary Competition for short stories. When Jeff is not writing or working on art, he is curled up with a good book or teaching himself to play the piano in his hundred year-old Victorian home.