“Thomas Jefferson was right: I read to live”
By Jennifer Hudson Allen, Ph.D., Visiting Scholar, History
In truth, I cannot remember a time where there was not a book with me. I have met countless numbers of people who do not share this trait. For me, it is as necessary as breathing. I have pondered what makes some people readers and others generally indifferent or downright hostile to reading, and can only find answers from my own life. I have always been a reader, and will always be a reader. Like the third US President, I cannot live without books surrounding me.
Reading has always been important in my family, although I never saw my parents actually read a book. At night, my three older siblings and I would gather together in one bedroom and our mother would read to us. Being the youngest, I occupied her lap on the rocking chair as she read tales of Babar, Curious George, and Lyle the Crocodile. I found the tale of Alexander and the Magic Mouse most amazing and cried when I thought the ducklings in Robert McCloskey’s book might not make it to safety. Virginia Lee Burton expanded my childhood with The Little House and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. I was careful to look around the mall for any lost bears looking for a home after I read about Corduroy. There was always time for one more helping of Stone Soup or one more tale of Strega Nona. I had a flashlight guarded by my stuffed animal collection so that I could continue reading golden books after the lights went out. I still have a book light at my bedside table so as not to disturb my sleeping husband when I read into the wee hours of the morning.
Accessibility to books has always occupied a primary spot in my life. The public library serves as a place of happiness and an oasis of serenity for me in an otherwise hectic world. As a child I visited the public library every Saturday. With paper library card in hand, I wandered through the children’s section to find treasures to take home. There was a limit to the number of books a child could check out, and I always had my books read within hours of returning home. My mother scolded me more than once for stealing library books from my siblings before they had read them. My need for a steady supply of books continues to my adult life, and dictated that we buy a house within biking distance to the local library.
My education has reinforced a love of reading. I decided early to be a teacher because it made no logical sense to me to have a job where books were not involved. I chose history and English as my majors because they came with stories and there was always a book list. I have degrees in both History and English, and entered graduate school in History for the true tales of the world. I learned to read for information, knowledge, and to understand the world. Reading has given me confidence to excel in my life. Reading can level the playing field when academics, gender, social status, or geography fail. I would not be a good teacher without reading. I would not be a good historian without reading. I earned my doctorate because of reading. I meet cool people because of reading. I am able to build a bridge of understanding with my students because I can share stories, ask questions, and learn more about the wonderfully diverse group of people sitting in my classes.
It would be unfair to not admit that reading has been an occasional problem for me. If I am lost in a book, I can often conduct conversations of which I have absolutely no recollection. I can ignore everyone and everything. (Although this does not bother me, other people find it incredibly annoying and frustrating). Books make me daydream, and my imagination can create wonderful scenarios from what I have read. They have also been the source of many nightmares if I let them work too much sinister magic on my mind. I have ignored fatigue and sleep because I had to finish one more chapter. I have paid baggage fees at airports so that I could pack a suitcase for my books before I bought a Kindle. A short trip to the library to retrieve a book can take hours of browsing among the stacks. I have nursed horrible sunburns on holidays because I was reading on the beach and forgot to reapply sunscreen. I have literally walked into walls while reading a book. Thankfully, the books suffered no damage and broken toes are not an impediment to reading.
My ability to read has also been my biggest saving grace. I have read for calm on turbulent plane flights that make me nauseous, scared, and contemplate running for the emergency door. I have read as a distraction from physically and emotionally crushing panic attacks that have threatened my teaching career and my ability to leave my own home. I have turned to books for a brief moment of solace as I sat, helpless, in hospice with my dying mother knowing that there was nothing I could do about the situation. I surrounded myself in a fortress of stories as I waded through the grief of unexpectedly losing one of our beloved Dobermans this past May. I have no idea how I would have survived situations I have experienced in my life without books at my side. Reading has also been my primary source of entertainment. If I find myself with a few hours of free time, I read. I read on my birthday as a gift to myself. I try and read every day. I may not read an entire book at each sitting, but I will read something.
Reading has saved my sanity. It has made me hopeful. It has consoled me. Reading connects me to the world, to others, and to myself. It is the soothing balm that my bruised spirit needs to regenerate when I feel as if there is nothing more I can do to solve the problems in my life, or in the world as a whole. I understand what Montesquieu meant when he said, “I have never known any distress that an hour’s reading did not relieve.” There are times in my life when I have been alone, but I was never lonely because I always have books for company. Reading does not necessarily change the outcome, but it changes my outlook. For me, that makes all the difference.
Reading is my App for Life…because it I cannot survive without it.