Under the Covers with a Flashlight: Our Lives as Readers

It was a sticky, scorching summer, made worse for the fact that I had been relegated to the third floor of my family’s house: I had to give up my room for guests who had come to visit, and heat rises, as you well know. The pink room had sloped ceilings, but it was no bother because I was rather short back then. Okay, I’m still short. I’m painting a picture of nostalgia, leave me alone.

I was supposed to be asleep; my mom was directing a summer musical for kids and we started rehearsal bright and early every morning, so I had to be awake. But hey, I was on the third floor, and no one would be the wiser if I kept this light on for a little longer, right? I had to finish this chapter; Boba Fett was taking a team of bounty hunters to meet Gheeta the Hutt, and I just knew the job was gonna go wrong in a bad way. Sleep was not an option, not until I found out if my instincts were right.

My distinct memories from that summer are wrapped up in goofy costumes and musical numbers that I can still recall note for word, but also in staying up for hours after everyone else had gone to bed and reading the first installment of the Bounty Hunter Wars Trilogy while I ignored the discomfort of late night summer heat. They are special memories, ones that I can recall with alarming clarity—the scent of the book’s paper and ink, how badly I stuck to myself when I tried to shift positions, how low the light was coming from the old lamp on the bedside table.

I believe, more often than not, that where and when we read something has as much relevance as what we are reading. We associate certain tomes with different times in our lives, the same way we commonly do with music and types of food, scents and people. We can mark off chapters of our own stories based on the things we learned in the books we read, the friends or family members we read them with. For instance, when my aunt read James and the Giant Peach to me, I remember how the whole world got a little more magical—and was equally devastated when she couldn’t finish it before her visit ended, and my dad just couldn’t mimic her voices for the characters.

When I was ten years old, I sat on my bed at home and finished The Illustrated Man, my first Bradbury book. As I closed the back cover on a long exhale, I had a sense, then and there, that my perspective on the world had somehow shifted in ways that I wasn’t ready to understand. I can remember causing my mother so much grief for wanting to stay inside during our vacation: I was having plenty of fun on my own, thanks, learning all about the Improbability Drive and the reasons why I should always carry a towel with me. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was essential to my existence, and she couldn’t stop me from finishing that book by nightfall. Sunshine and beaches were for other people.

Of course, what we read as children has a profound impact, but I think this relevance continues into adulthood. That novella you read when you caught the plague at work and couldn’t move for two weeks. The collection of short stories you read with a good friend and the talks you had about it afterward. The book you read to escape a tragedy in your life. They connect you to your past in a powerful way, sometimes better than any pictorial or video evidence you have at hand.

When I was studying abroad for my junior year of college, I spent spring break traveling around Europe. I began Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in Istanbul and finished it in Rome, the first and last destinations of my trip. That book will stay with me in ways that others cannot, and I’m sure that part of my affection is wrapped up in the simultaneous journey I was taking with the characters. Jonathan Strange lived a great adventure and so did I, at the very same time, in fact.

We were even in Venice together, a kind of magic that is nigh impossible to duplicate.

But my favorite memory of reading is probably the night of July 21st, 2007. That’s right, the final installment of the Harry Potter saga. I should begin by explaining the situation: my home town had a habit of transforming one of our main avenues into Diagon Alley when each book was released. Restaurants sold butterbeer, Hogwarts house colors were worn with pride and everyone partied in the street until it was time to get in the long line and wait for your coveted copy. That year, one of the churches had agreed to turn their basement into Azkaban prison. (Yes, you read that exactly right.) The high school theater department handed over some of their lighting and set pieces, three costumed actors were hired to play Bellatrix Lestrange, and Lucius and Narcissa Malfoy, and my friends and I were called in to be “prison guards” and give tours to kids and families.

We each adopted a different accent (I was the irish guard… it’s a long story) and did continuous tours for five straight hours, going hoarse before we realized that it was nearly midnight and we needed to split quick. I went to the local independent children’s book shop and ended up with a shorter wait because I hadn’t pre-ordered my copy of the book—the pre-order lines were a nightmare. Reuniting with my friends, we adjourned to Sarah’s backyard, where her parents had been kind enough to put up tents and equip them with lamps (like real wizarding tents!) and food for a full-on battalion. We settled into sleeping bags and started Deathly Hallows together. Sarah, also the fastest reader of the group, frequently gasped and demanded that everyone let her know when they had reached this or that page. We grimaced and bemoaned her speed, desperately trying to catch up until we all finally succumbed to our drowsiness. The sun woke us in the morning and it was a beautiful day.

Each and every one of us has moments like these, times when a book becomes more than a book. It is a touchstone and the stories between the pages are reflections of us. They remind us of who we were, who we are now and how we got there. The next time you have a bout of nostalgia, I encourage you not to pull out the old photo album. Head to your bookshelf instead, and see what surfaces. I guarantee it will be more than you think.

The pen is mightier than a lot of things. The sword was just the first one down.


Photo by Flickr user margolove used under Creative Commons license

Emily Asher-Perrin had a Boba Fett helmet that she bought with her own hard-saved money when she was small. It’s safe in her family’s attic until she has a proper place to display it. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

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