I don’t know how I first learned to read. My parents won’t take credit. My kindergarten teacher can’t claim she helped, because I was reading before I ever walked through the classroom door. I have no memory of how it started, so I hardly have the right to an opinion, but it’s a story I know well.
Sitting in the backseat at age two, I looked out the window at a sign and said, “Car!” My mom laughed, thinking I was mimicking her. “Wash!” I said. She stopped laughing.
When we stopped at a red light, she looked back at me. “Brittany, what does that sign say?” she asked, pointing. “Sale,” I said.
She took me to her parents’ house that evening. “Mom, I think Brittany can read,” she said. My grandma took out a small chalkboard and wrote simple words. I read what she wrote: BOY. CAT. DOG. MOM. No one could understand it, but there I was, a reader.
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Often during the holidays, my family sits down to watch a favorite video on VHS of me reading to my sister Erika. On film, I am four years old and she’s two. We’re wearing matching nightgowns and sitting by each other on the couch, although she keeps twisting around to ham it up for the camera. The Christmas tree twinkles behind us.
My lispy voice squeaks as I read a Little Critter book, my delivery like a freight train. Nothing can stop me, not even Erika’s protests: “I wanna sing Jinga Bells!”
“‘Twas da night befoah Chwistmus and allll fwoo da house,” I lilt, charmed by the story. I am a reading machine.
My mom tells me how I used to plow though books sitting in the exam room at the pediatrician’s office. I’d happily oblige her, reading a Berenstain Bears book aloud, but once Dr. M walked in the door, I clammed up. “Brittany, please read a page for Dr. M,” my mom would ask, but I would stay silent, acting like I wasn’t in the room. I read for the books, not for other people.
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In grade school, I had moved on from Bookmobile to school library, gladly devouring random selections from the shelves. I scared myself reading Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians in seventh grade and relished it from cover to cover. Later that year, I joined my friend Justine’s family for a road trip to Boise, where I learned to ski, but what I remember just as vividly is when we finally arrived at her brother’s house and I refused to socialize or go to sleep until I had finished Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
I’ve rarely let my social life keep me from reading, for better or worse. I was the girl on the hallway couch in high school who was reading during a free period. Maybe early on it was mostly the latest offering from Nora Roberts or Danielle Steel, but even the glittering, impossibly perfect lives in those novels taught me to think about what I truly want in life. Later, it was Literature, and I would have been happy to tell you why that was important if you asked. I thought I was a charming little scholar.
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Books are a delicious escape from the world and a new horizon unfolding. They bring comfort and reality. They nurture and challenge. Even now, when I tell myself I’d rather be watching the latest episode of SNL or lying on the couch as I binge on an entire season of Orange Is The New Black, when I choose a book instead, I never regret it. Books help me understand other people and myself. They let me feel things. They help me seize possibility and growth.
Whether it’s a used paperback or a brand-new first edition, something I’m reading for the third time, or a book on the Kindle, I’m with Borges, who said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
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A sampling of favorite books, in rough chronological order
1 Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss
2 Corduroy by Don Freeman
4 Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey
5 Snuggle Piggy and the Magic Blanket by Michelle Stepto
6 Little House on the Prairie (series) by Laura Ingalls Wilder
7 Hatchet by Gary Paulsen
8 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
9 The Giver by Lois Lowry
10 The BFG by Roald Dahl
11 The Saddle Club (series) by Bonnie Bryant
12 Shabanu, Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples
13 The Babysitters Club (series) by Ann M. Martin
14 Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
15 The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
16 Joyride by Gretchen Olson
17 The Gift by Danielle Steel
18 Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
19 The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
20 East of Eden by John Steinbeck
21 Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
22 Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
23 All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy
24 Spartina by John Casey
25 Mink River by Brian Doyle
26 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
27 The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
28 Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
29 Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
30 Light Years by James Salter
31 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
32 The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
33 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
34 Daring Greatly by Brene Brown
35 Yes Please by Amy Poehler
36 The Dream of A Common Language by Adrienne Rich
37 Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
38 An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
39 Lit by Mary Karr
40 All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr