I was a confused and awkward middle schooler (weren’t we all?), who struggled to make friends and to understand the world outside my tiny experience of it. I was always saying the wrong words, doing the wrong things, ending up in places I didn’t want to be.
Where I felt the most at home was inside the pages of a book. There, I could discover new truths, I could see myself (or my sisters or family or neighbors) in a different light. I could experience the world without the risk of getting it wrong.
From Bridge to Terabithia to the Judy Blume series to The Thorn Birds saga that I picked up from my mom’s bedside table then couldn’t put down, I inhaled these places, these people, these events as I tried to figure out who I was and what I was meant to do.
Even the classics in high school thrilled me. Dostoevsky, Ionesco, Milton. Each one opened my awareness a crack wider and let in a breath of this big, crazy, hard-to-fathom universe.
When life as we all knew it stopped last March and continued its long, strange trip through 2020, I was reminded of those middle and high school years — of how off-balance I felt, how insecure and lost. And how reading helped me find my way — or sometimes run away.
Over my 50 years, books have been my map for discovering the world (James Michener), my guide, providing context and perspective (John Steinbeck, J.M. Coetzee, Toni Morrison). They’ve been my friends during the lonely times (E.M. Forster, Louisa May Alcott) and taken me to exotic places during the years when I could not travel (Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez). They’ve given me fantastical lands to inhabit with my children (Thomas the Tank Engine, Little House on the Prairie, Harry Potter). And life lessons that have fundamentally shaped who I am (the Bible, C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Mary Oliver). Books have been my lifeline, saving me from depression, boredom, stagnation.
This year, they have been all of those things again, helping me to understand the new and disorienting, helping me to escape the stressful, helping me to expand my horizons even as my actual day-to-day squeezed tighter and tighter.
Books can also connect. They’ve been a way for me to reach my far-away family during this time when we cannot be together. We’ve recommended books to each other and discussed the ones we’ve shared.
And they can pave a path forward. After the racial justice protests of this summer, books became a way to shift the cultural conversation and re-imagine a nation of true equality and opportunity for all.
As we head into a new year, with our hopes for brighter days, I am walking with this recognition that books are a kind of super power, able to transport and teach and touch — and help us hear what we need to know in order to do and be better.
No matter what 2021 brings, the characters that have lived with us all these years will still be there. And the ability to discover so many more beautiful, flawed, honest stories is waiting for us. We need only reserve it at the library, pick it up at our local book store, crack the spine and the let the words wash over us.
We can take comfort in that fact, that books are the tools we need to make sense of whatever the future holds.