Mar 7 2011 5:31pm

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.

Shamrock Jack
1. Shamrock Jack
That was lovely. Thank you.

I was eight when I first read Lord of the Rings and I have since read it at least once or twice a year in the nineteen years hence. All these years and I still associate in my mind with winter due to the inital read having taken place during the Christmas vacation that year.

This june, my fiancee and I are having a Lord of the Rings wedding. Since August, I have read the book twice, seen the movie thrice, and listened to the BBC audiodrama twice in preparation. In the years that are to come, I wonder what associations I will apply to my favourite book once it is so intricately tied to my favourite day.
Warren Ockrassa
2. warreno
One of my trigger books is also Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles. There's a direct line of mind and experience between when I was when I was first reading it, and when I am when I'm reading it again.

Just the right waft of early spring air, just the right degree of freshness and laziness on a weekend afternoon, and the decades are stripped away and I find myself in the head I inhabited when the years of my life were just beyond the single digits.
Chris Hawks
3. SaltManZ
When I reread a book—or sometimes just think about one—I'm often struck with a vague sense of place, having to do with where I was when I read it previously. I can't think of The Hobbit, for example, without thinking about tromping down the stairs from "my" bedroom in my grandparents' house for Thanksgiving dinner.
Shamrock Jack
4. jharris225
I distinctly remember being snuggled up tight in bed while my mother reading me The Hobbit each night before sleeping. It's one of my favorite childhood memories and home.
Shamrock Jack
5. RobinM
I have my own memories of staying up late reading books but one of my most treasured is of reading to my nephew. He wanted me to read to him from Scary Stories to Read in Dark. I agreed since it was only late evening and nowhere near bedtime. He went and got his book and a flashlight. We needed the flashlight because he turned out the bedroom light and shut the door. We read those stories in a dark, dark, room with only a flashlight to see by and it was shivery fun.
Shamrock Jack
6. Dr. Cox
Good article!
I don't think it was my first reading of The Lord of the Rings, but I remember reading it between classes in highschool hoping I wouldn't gasp or anything during the Pelennor Field battle chapter (always compelling, no matter how many rereads). Not sci-fi, but I read Jane Eyre in about 48 hours even tho' I had a week to read it for class, and didn't skip classes or chapel to do it (having a block of time one afternoon helped). My first reading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was on vacation in New Mexico and I still remember the cabin porch and the view. I bought my copy of the book at an Oxfam bookshop in Cheltenham, England, and just looking at the copy on the shelf reminds me of buying it and reading it at the B&B.
Elyse Guziewicz
7. brainz4christ
Ah, I always used my light-up clocks. Many books did this to me- Brisingr and Dune most recently.
Tricia Irish
8. Tektonica
What a lovely piece! Certain books can truly evoke time and place and a certain frame of mind. Can we share? Two of my memorable ones....

The Hobbit.....I was too distracted, (or impaired), or impatient with the complicated names when I was in college to get into it.

Then one summer, my son, who was about 10 at the time, and I were driving from Florida to Colorado. I bought the 13 cassettes of the Hobbit to listen to. It was an amazing journey, listening and talking about it. We were hooked. Upon arrival in Denver, I headed straight to the Tattered Cover to buy the Lord of the Rings and we were off to a great summer adventure in Middle Earth. Magic indeed.

The first week of my first summer in Breckenridge, Co., altitude 9,600 ft., was spent trying to breathe, while lying on the couch with Into Thin Air, by John Krakauer. Starring out my windows at the peaks of the continental divide while reading that harrowing adventure, put me right into the story.

Thank you, Emily for evoking these memories!
Rob Munnelly
9. RobMRobM
My memory books are the Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. I got them from friends while I was in the hospital for two weeks during third grade (don't ask) and they kept me sane and happy - and low hospital lights are better than flashlights for nightime reading.


P.s. Tek - love the Krakauer book!!
Shamrock Jack
10. Michael S. Schiffer
From your description of the Harry Potter release, I have a sudden suspicion that we're neighbors. (And since my wife and I went through "Azkaban" that evening with some friends, we may even have sort of met. :-) )

I reserved my copy from the library (which was open at midnight for those of us who did), and w0und up taking it through the park full of criss-crossed lines for the aforementioned preorders. I carried it past the waiting throngs as if I were escorting a rock star. (Then someone asked how many pages it had, and when I went to check I felt rather than heard the groan from dozens of people, who saw me looking at the end and were afraid I was about to spoil it.)
Michael Burke
11. Ludon
I have three to mention. The first was not about where but what I learned - That you as the reader can learn something which the characters have not fugured out. I was still in grade-school when I read Robert Silverberg's Time Of The Great Freeze.

Second. I was alone in my bedroom (and I'm glad I was) during my middle-school years when I learned that you can get aroused by imagery presented within a story - even though the imagery was not sexual in nature. I'll not say which short story because then I'd have to explain how it related to my life experiences.

Third. I was in my social studies/history class in middle-school when I demonstrated that I was able to read and comprehend "adult" books. This was not a science fiction book but one day my teacher noticed my copy of The President's Plane Is Missing in my pile of books. He picked it up then looked to see where the bookmark was then asked "Are you really reading this?" I said yes then asked "What the Vice President is trying to do, is that legal?" He said "He thinks it is, but what do you think?" This led to an interesting discussion.
Emily Lind
13. Malana
As amazingily wonderful as Andy Serkis was a Gollum in the LOTR films, there will always be a tiny part of me it doesn't work for, simply because he does not sound the way my father did when my dad read The Hobbit to me when I was small.

The Little House books will always be forever linked to sitting on the couch with my grandmother, taking turns reading allowed.

H2G2...well, that one is harder to pinpoint. Because that's linked to me discovering something of my own. Not something I read with my parents (it's really not their cup of tea), not something that was recomended to me by family or friends. It was *mine* in a way that no other book before it had been, or would be after. The closest thing that came to it was when I discovered Sandman and it launched me for the first time into the world of graphic novels.
James Hogan
14. Sonofthunder
Ohh lovely article! I have many such memories of my own...too many to detail here. I also experienced many late nights under the covers with a Star Wars book(who needs to sleep for school anyway??). Many of my book memories are tied to traveling as well. Every year my family would spend a week at a rented house on the Florida panhandle and for some reason, whoever owned the house had a fondness for the Dumarest of Terra series. I remember discovering these books scattered through the house and lying on the floor next to my bed during the evening relishing these books to a soundtrack of the waves crashing softly to the shore outside the house...every year I went, there would be different ones I hadn't read and so every year I just couldn't help but read them!! I still need to track down some of these and reread to see what they're like now..
I remember reading Prelude to Foundation at lunch my first year of high school and being continually enthralled by it. My first(and certainly not my last Asimov!!) I remember reading Second Foundation in the basement of my grandma's house and sitting back in stunned satisfaction at the conclusion. I remember reading Brothers Karamazov on top of a big hill on the Washington/Oregon border, overlooking the Columbia River and soaking in the loveliness of the book...I remember reading The Dragon Reborn for the first time on a treestand in the wilds of northern Florida, looking out over a heathered field and being peppered by the cries of a thousand birds and being lost in the adventures of Rand al'Thor...

I could go on and on but I shall refrain. But thinking of so many books takes me back to where I was when I first read many of my favorite memories are intertwined with books!!!
Shamrock Jack
15. Stephanie Burgis
I really love this entry! Thanks for posting it.
Shamrock Jack
16. a-j
My mother reading me The Hobbit during a camping holiday. Sitting in front of an open fire one winter reading King Solomon's Mines and reading James and the Giant Peach early one Monday morning when I was ill and could not sleep but pleased because I knew I would not be going to school later.
Shamrock Jack
17. Girl Friday
Lovely article, so jealous of your Harry Potter magic!

The one memory that sticks with me is being ill in bed for two weeks as a student in Paris aged 18, and reading War and Peace. It taught me so much about life and was the first book that ever made me cry.
lake sidey
18. lakesidey
So many memories! "To Kill a Mockingbird" during my all-nighter with lots of black coffee for "Ender's Shadow"..... "Metamorphosis" on a night train journey after 2 days of nearly no sleep....discovering the magic of George Martin at a sunset by a lake.....a magical night at a friend's hostel room when I first encountered a book "the Player of Games" and some songs "the Sound of Music" which still rank among my all-time favourites over a decade later...and many older, fainter memories too....I still relate "the Secret Seven" with cream cracker biscuits (don't ask)....and of course numerous books which got me through various illnesses!

Thanks for this post!

Shamrock Jack
19. Nawfal Q
Nice writing. Thanks for sharing.
Josh Storey
20. Soless
I listen to audio books on my commute to and from work. Thanks to that travel time I was able to catch up on all of the current books in the Dresden Files, and now there are certain turns or stretches of road that I automatically associate with turning points in Harry's life.

That's where the building burnt down, I think as I drive a stretch of back road. That's where he found Mouse. That's where he met Murphy and planned to go for a drink, and that's where...
Adam Shaeffer
21. ashaef
This might be the best article I've read on to date, and that is saying something.
Shamrock Jack
22. mister_ethan
Very nice, thanks.
Emily Asher-Perrin
23. EmilyAP
Thank you for sharing all of your wonderful stories, everyone! It's really great to hear about your experiences and bring up old memories. (Clearly, I should get on someone's case for not reading The Hobbit to me as a kid. I had to pick that one up on my own.) I'm sure more of you have stories out there--keep them coming!

And thank you to all of you who enjoyed this. Really thank you.

Also, @Michael S. Schiffer - we may have met indeed! That is just too funny for words. I remember the lines at the library, they were nuts...
Shamrock Jack
24. XLCR
Great story! When I first assayed reading at the tender age of five, there were two books on the shelf at home that I actually learned to read on, called Rusty's Space Ship and Half Magic. One was my beginning on speculative science fiction and the other began my career of reading fantasy. I can't remember the authors.

Once I discovered the local library I used to trudge down there lugging an orange crate so I could take home the maximum limit of 12 books. There I found a great treasure. They had the entire pre-WWI first edition collection of L. Frank Baum's Wizard of OZ series. Some of my warmest memories are sitting in front of a fan on a warm summer evening in Montana reading about tin men and tic-tok men and all other sorts of magical things.
Dru O'Higgins
25. bellman
I think I was eight when my Dad came home from a trip and handed me a copy of "The Hobbit", saying "I think you might like this." Large book, with illustrations from the Rankin/Bass movie. I was a quarter of the way through it when I put it down and ran out the door to the nearest bookstore and bought "Lord of the Rings". I will never forget that weekend, lying on my bed reading LotR for the first time, ignoring calls to dinner.

Thank you for bringing back so many memories! Dune and the Swords Trilogy on a family trip to Hawaii, reading through all the tourist traps... as an adult, the Heris Serrano books getting me through quitting smoking...Great article!
Grainne McGuire
26. helen79
I always remember the Changeover by Margaret Mahy. I first read this about 25 years ago, finding it on a weekly excursion to a library.

I stepped into a modern day fairy tale, set among housing estates in New Zealand in a story which had witchcraft, evildoers and romance, yet was about far more than that. It's still magic, even rereading it as an adult.

Library night was always Tuesday, I was tired the next day because once I started that book, it didn't get put down.

Thanks for bringing back the memories.
Erick G
27. Erick G
If I could agree with a statement more than 100%, I would be hard pressed to pick one in your post. Everything you said I could relate to, everything there hit home. I have had those moments, and mostly they were spent with my sisters. My family couldn't afford to buy us each a copy of a book, so we had to alternate who got to read each book first. I always opted to go last, because I knew I read the fastest and couldn''t keep the spoilers from surfacing as they read at their snail pace. And after they finished, we would converse for hours on what was just read, the shared shocks and displeasures and everything in between. I think it was these moments more than anything that created my love of books and reading, and without them I would be a completely different person.
Lisa Schensted
28. heylisarenee
what a nice journey through some of your fonder reading memories! thanks for sharing and for providing the opportunity for the rest of us to reflect on ours too. good stuff!
Felicity Shoulders
29. Felicity
My parents, like some other commenters', read us The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and also the Foundation Trilogy. After my older sister started having too much homework, Dad started side books just for me, which ended up being sci-fi: Clifford Simak's Waystation was one of my favorites. The LotR reading was of course the most central and memorable. I remember staring intensely at the mantelpiece while Dad read the part where Sam thought Frodo was dead, and the rebellion my sister and I raised when they tried to put us to bed without resolving the situation (successful! We stayed up late that night.)

A lot of my solo reading was done sitting on a heating vent in my room. I distinctly remember finishing my dad's Science Fiction Book Club copy of Dune, closing it with a satisfying thump, and calling out to my dad as he walked past my door to talk to him about it. "Now that," I said in the full certainty of my eleven or twelve years, "is a book it would be impossible to make into a movie." He disabused me gently.
Shamrock Jack
30. Silent Mists
Reading Harry Potter got me so used to the smell of Bloomsbury books, that every time I read a Bloomsbury memories of Harry Potter come crashing. Ofcourse, I bought all the Scholastic versions too, but my journey with Harry Potter began with Bloomsbury :)

I remember being introduced to Harry Potter by a friend. I was in 7th grade stocking up on books for the the Summer holidays when a friend told me she had a book "of magic" with an "old man with an incredibly long beard wearing royal blue robes with stars on them." That's when I decided that a book with a character looking like that must be quite a read. Ofcourse, by the time I finished the Philosopher's Stone I was gaping and gasping for breath, in love with the "old man" Dumbledore and thought that was the end of the series. I was so disappointed there weren't more.
I discovered about the other three (Goblet of Fire had just been released) six months later when a friend mentioned Chamber of Secrets. I looked at her disbelievingly, "no, it can't be true," I thought to myself. Running to the store I bought the lot and devoured the books in a couple days. I was in love like I had never been before.
From then on, I have had marathons with every book's release, reading in the kitchen with cousins, because the rest of the house was full to the brim with people sleeping, laughing like maniacs and screaming in shock trying our best not to give out spoilers.
Ofcourse, other books have had great impacts and have left their fond memories as well, but nothing, nothing compares with Harry Potter.
Needless to say, I grew up with Harry, and associate everything in my life with it, and even when I forget, little things like a smell of a piece of paper can cause my mind to rush back to the world of Hogwarts and everything within.
I only wish that others could have grown with a legend like we did, and hope that more books like these emerge.
The last movie will make my cry, I know, but I wonder what Rowling has in store for us with PotterMore.
James Frenkel
31. broadway_jimmy
Just, belatedly, read this post. Brings back many memories. It's true, no question, that the place and time one reads something can be quite tied to the book (or story) being read. i remember with terrible vividness reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson when I was ten years old, in bed, sick as a dog, in a hotel in Maplewood, New Jersey during Easter vacation. All I have to do is open to the first page and I'm there again. The story was so creepy to my ten-year-old mind . . .

A more pleasant memory: Reading Catcher in the Rye in seventh grade in three successive days during lunch in the school auditorium. The auditorium was never the same for me again.
Joy Gillingham
32. MovieLovingBookworm
I remember first reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone back when I was fourteen (Dad would bring me with him when he fixed customer's air conditioners since it took more than one hour to complete the job, so I'd have to bring a book to read to keep from being bored when the only exciting thing happening was handing the asked for hammer, nails, screw driver etc)! When I had tried to read the book the year before, I couldn't get past the third chapter. Now that I was older, I though I'd give it another try. I remember very well needing to find out what happened next in this fast paced, suspenseful, thrilling book. By the time I closed the book, I thought, based on what I'd been told about it 'this is a book for boys?! I LOVE this book!'. Needless to say, I quickly read the three other books in the series available at the time and went to the midnight premiere for the last three books as they became available for publication as well as watching the movies in theaters the day or week they were in theaters and bought them once they were on VHS and DVD. I also remember reading the fans theories, the list of spells used, fan fiction, and information about the characters and places in my obsession during the Harry Potter craze in the 2000's. I also remember reading The Hobbit for the first time later on that same year I first read Harry Potter and reading The Lord of the Rings while I was in my freshman year of college, even though I had loved watching the movies when they first hit theaters. I had a similar, if years longer, experience when I first read the whole Chronicles of Narnia when I was in my junior year of college, having grown up with the BBC TV movies. I'm now beginning to read the Hunger Games trilogy while in graduate school at a new university.

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