When I was 8 years old, my mother and I left our home in inner-city Boston and moved to a rural town in the middle of Northern Massachusetts. I was a city kid who had grown up in a rough neighborhood, used to seeing blood on sidewalks, not fields that stretched for miles. My father did not come with us. I missed him the way you miss something you don't know is missing, which is to say I didn't know why he was gone. I could feel the trouble but I couldn't put words to it. My mother worked and slept and cried and I was left to myself, using my imagination to fill up the great space that now surrounded us. I don't know if I spoke to my father of my loneliness, but I will never forget the first package he sent me. It felt odd to get mail from him, when he used to sleep in the room right next to mine, which was the room he still slept in — I was the one who had moved miles and towns and worlds away. If the package contained a note I do not remember it. All I remember is holding the cassette. On its label, in my father's handwriting: "Book One of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring." Below that was simply: "The Beginning." I had an old tape recorder and a pair of hastily repaired headphones and that year my father read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy to me, despite the fact that he was nowhere close to me at all.
Eventually, my father moved back in with us — joining us in our rural life, where we used a wood stove to heat our drafty house and placed warm bricks in our beds. Still, my mother didn't stop crying. Our once empty-feeling place was now loud with my parent's yelling, as they did their best to patch their lives back together. I spent lots of time going exploring on my bike, no longer forced to stay within eyeshot of my house, as I had been in Boston. In the center of town I became friends with an old man whose one leg was shorter than the other. He was a retired minister who played piano and lived in a house overflowing with books. I'm not sure why he pegged me as someone who would enjoy Stephen King. Maybe it was because he could tell I was having a hard time at home. Maybe it was because he'd seen me sneak behind the town hall to smoke cigarettes. Maybe it's because it's impossible to be young and not love Stephen King. Either way, he said, "I think you'll like this," as he handed me The Stand. I devoured it immediately. There's no escape from reality like being terrified of something imaginary. When I brought The Stand back next week, the minister took every Stephen King book he had and piled them into a giant cardboard box, which I tied to my bike before riding home, careful not to lose my balance.
At 14, I left for boarding school with the help of a scholarship. Freshman year, we had a dorm parent who was probably only about 23 himself. Covered in tattoos and better at skateboarding than all of us combined, he was quick to influence us, making sure we watched Full Metal Jacket and appreciated the nuances of Blade Runner. When he realized I was a reader, with my mishmash of a stolen library copy of The Bluest Eye and every Star Wars novel I could get my hands on and my mother's copy of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and my father's copy of On the Road, he started feeding me more books. American Psycho. Fight Club. Naked Lunch. Often I wouldn't be able to keep up, like with Dostoevsky's The Idiot, but it made it feel like a whole new world of books had been opened up to me, dangerous and menacing and completely appealing to my teenage self. A rite of passage, similar to my first time drinking or my first time doing acid, except this was one that I could be proud of.
In college I got into nonfiction. Books like Charlie Wilson's War, Notes of a Native Son, and Dylan Thomas: A New Life fascinated me as I marveled at the accomplishments of others, while I myself toiled away in service industry jobs. This time, my escapism was reality itself — just not the reality I lived in. I immersed myself in these celebrated lives; I could not imagine my life being the kind anyone would ever want to read about.
It was most likely all the service industry jobs that led me to pick up the memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. The more I was amazed by the lives of others, the more I was surprised to learn that, sometimes, their worlds were familiar to me. I was shocked by Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, rooted in the city where I was born, its story centered in a homeless shelter (a world I knew, having been raised in shelters run by the Catholic Worker), not to mention the fact that it featured a messy childhood becoming a messy adulthood, just as mine was becoming. The most powerful thing a book can do is make you feel as if you are not alone.
My father drove me to the airport when I decided to leave the East Coast and head to San Francisco with nothing more than a bag and a long-distance girlfriend who I'd be living with despite the fact that she already shared her tiny bedroom with another roommate. My father didn't say much during the drive. But after I got out of the car and hoisted my bag over my shoulder, he handed me a copy of what would come to be one of my favorite books: The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake. I would read that copy cover to cover numerous times before giving it away, unwilling to keep the book to myself. I reckon I've given away 20 or so copies over the years, but I still miss that first one, which I stuck in my back pocket as I headed to my gate, my father standing behind me.
Even as my reading tastes expanded, I still kept a special place in my heart for where it all began: fantasy. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I was 24 years old and working in a bar in San Francisco. I read like I'd read when I was a kid with nothing else to do, gulping the book down like cold beer on a hot day, tearing through the ending while sitting in a cafe, tears pouring down my face as I lost all track of time and self and surroundings. In those days, practically every third person I'd see was lugging that same book around, and I felt a keen sense of connection to them, recognizing anew how reading could be a communal experience, not just a solitary one.
In my late twenties, I managed to get a job at an online culture magazine that had the good fortune to publish the Dear Sugar column, a notoriously popular advice column that was secretly written by Cheryl Strayed. Her columns were collected in a book called Tiny Beautiful Things. Though I had read her columns many times before, I found myself coming back to the book again and again. It just kept saying things about my life and the lives of everyone around me, wise and kind and true things that bore repeating and remembering. Once, at a sterile hotel bar in Austin, I was drinking Lone Stars with a woman I'd just met, who was telling me about an affair she was hopelessly embroiled in. I reached into my bag, pulled out Tiny Beautiful Things, and slid it across the bar. Books that actually help, no matter the genre, are my favorite things. Sometimes they just help us to understand one another a little bit more, which is no small thing. And sometimes they perform a kind of rare magic and pull people out of a rut, help them do or even feel something else, something better.
I could go on and on. Memories of sitting at my post when I was a bouncer and reading giant tomes to help pass the time as I waited for the rush of afternoon day drinkers and weekend warriors to pour in. My parents lovingly reading to me in our cramped, basement apartment in Boston, and later me reading to myself under the covers with a flashlight as they argued in our rural Massachusetts home. The numerous books that have been given to me by teachers, family members, friends, and strangers that have helped make this life more magical or even just a little more manageable, and the books I have given to others in the hopes of doing the same. Of my favorite bookstores and my favorite libraries, and all of the reading nooks I've found in this world. What it felt like to hold my own book for the first time, and sit down to read it from cover to cover. My memories of reading are as numerous as the pages found inside a library, and I treasure them all. Thank you for letting me share these few with you, and know that I would love to hear yours in return.