Anna Quindlen is a novelist and journalist whose work has appeared on fiction, nonfiction, and self-help bestseller lists. She is the author of eight novels and several nonfiction books. While a columnist at the New York Times, she won the Pulitzer Prize. How Reading Changed My Life, from which this selection is excerpted, explores the importance of books in her life and their vital role in society.
There was always in me, even when I was very small, the sense that I ought to be somewhere else. And wander I did, although, in my everyday life, I had nowhere to go and no imaginable reason on earth why I should want to leave. The buses took to the interstate without me; the trains sped by. So I wandered the world through books.
I went to Victorian England in the pages of Middlemarch and A Little Princess, and to Saint Petersburg before the fall of the tsar with Anna Karenina. I went to Tara, and Manderley, and Thornfield Hall, all those great houses, with their high ceilings and high drama as I read Gone with the Wind, Rebecca and Jane Eyre.
When I was in eighth grade I took a scholarship test for a convent school and the essay question began with a quotation: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.” Later, over a stiff and awkward lunch of tuna-fish salad, some of the other girls at my table were perplexed by the source of the quotation and what it meant, and I was certain, at that moment, weeks before my parents got the letter from the nuns, that the scholarship was mine. How many times had I gone up the steps to the guillotine with Sydney Carton as he went to that far, far better rest at the end of A Tale of Two Cities?
Like so many of the other books I read, it never seemed to me like a book, but like a place I had lived in, had visited and would visit again, just as all the people in them, every blessed one—Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Jay Gatsby, Elizabeth Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara, Dill and Scout, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot—were more real than the real people I knew. My home was in that pleasant place outside Philadelphia, but I really lived somewhere else. I lived within the covers of books and those books were more real to me than any other thing in my life. One poem committed to memory in grade school survives in my mined. It is by Emily Dickinson: “There is no Frigate like a Book/ To take us Lands away/Nor any coursers like a Page/ Of prancing Poetry.”
Perhaps only a truly discontented child can become as seduced by books as I was. Perhaps restlessness is a necessary corollary of devoted literacy. There was a club chair in our house, a big one, with curled arms and a square ottoman; it sat in one corner of the living room, catty-corner to the fireplace, with a barrel table next to it. In my mind I am always sprawled in it, reading with my skinny, scabby legs slung over one of its arms. “It’s a beautiful day,” my mother is saying; she said that always, often, autumn, spring, even when there was a fresh snowfall. “All your friends are outside.” It was true; they always were. Sometimes I went out with them, coaxed into the street, out into the fields, down by the creek, by the lure of what I knew intuitively was normal childhood, by the promise of being what I knew instinctively was a normal child, one who lived, raucous, in the world.
I have clear memories of that sort of life, of lifting the rocks in the creek that trickled through Naylor’s Run to search for crayfish, of laying pennies on the tracks of the trolley and running to fetch them, flattened, when the trolley had passed. But at base it was never any good. The best part of me was always home, within some book that had been laid flat on the table to mark my place, its imaginary people waiting for me to return and bring them to life. That was where the real people were, the trees that moved in the wind, the still, dark waters. I won a bookmark in a spelling bee during that time with these words of Montaigne upon it in gold: “When I am reading a book, whether wise or silly, it seems to me to be alive and talking to me.” I found that bookmark not long ago, at the bottom of a box, when my father was moving.
In the years since those days in that club chair I have learned that I was not alone in this, although at the time I surely was, the only child I knew, or my parents knew, or my friends knew, who preferred reading to playing kick-the-can or ice-skating or just sitting on the curb breaking sticks and scuffing up dirt with a sneaker in summer. In books I have traveled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the “shalt nots” of the Ten Commandments, I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. One of my favorite childhood books, A Wrinkle in Time, described that evil, that wrong, existing in a different dimension from our own. But I felt that I, too, existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger. My real, true world. My perfect island.
Excerpted from Reading for Life, published by Kids Read Now. Copyright © 2017 by each contributing author. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.