I (finally) moved my entire book collection to my apartment from my parent’s house, removing the mini library from the bedroom I have slept in since I was three years old. It was more of an emotional experience than I anticipated.
I loaded them into my car and drove back to my place, vaguely aware that I had the most precious cargo I have ever carried in my trunk and piled on the back seat. I had a devastating vision of the hatch flying open and pages tearing into the sky as I ripped down the highway, pieces of my childhood and soul sent flapping to the night sky.
I carted them up to my new bedroom, the bedroom that is mine in the place that I pay for, and started taking them out of boxes and bags to stack them on the new bookshelf. My breath caught when I came across A Little Princess, and suddenly I was curled on the bunk bed again, my head bent low to keep from grazing the ceiling as I traveled from India to London with Sara Crewe after her parents died. I was sweeping chimneys and sleeping in a cold attic, holding my head high as a mature little girl in an unfair world. I must have retreated to that story a hundred times.
As I put it on the shelf in a place where I could see it, I started to wonder how it had affected me. I read that story during the most impressionable years of my life, and it was a touchstone, a safe escape, magic that enchanted and asked for re-reading. Why did I keep returning? What was it about that story that hooked me — it is a classic, of course, but did I connect with it because I felt alone like Sara Crewe, or for some other reason? I might never know the answer to that, but I do know the story is as much a part of me as the fading birthmark on my thigh.
A small stack of books grew before me as I organized things, and I realized I was making a pile of the ones that were important. Anne of Avonlea, Miranda and the Movies, Eight Cousins, The Secret Garden — these are some classic loves from when I was a child, not to mention the Chronicles of Narnia and His Dark Materials. Later, it was Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and Random Family by Adrian Nicole Leblanc, the book I based my thesis on.
The entire collection of Dear America sits with torn corners and soft bindings, well-worn reminders of when I was girl from a different country and era. My favorite was The Girl Who Chased Away Sorrow, a book about the Long Walk of the Navajo. I read that one for the first time in second grade and Mrs. Daniels spotted me at my desk, engrossed. Her blue eyes sharpened and focused on the title. She stopped me at the doorway, my book clutched to my chest.
“If you need to talk about what you’re reading, I’m here,” she said, her blonde hair in a high ponytail with frizzy strands around her forehead. It is one of the most vivid memories I have of elementary school. I blushed because I always did when people spoke to me and said, “I’m fine, thanks.”
I wasn’t lying. I was at an advanced reading level, something I had learned the year previously when I had been directed to the library with two other students and a round table. It was the first time I identified as a nerd. I remember being embarrassed about that, but it didn’t stop me from reading more and more. I retreated into the label like a snail does with a shell, curling up into the home I was given and staying there out of touch. The only things that could reach me were books.
So now, as an adult, I am asking the question — how much of me is the books I read as a child? Are my religious tendencies rooted to the themes tucked into Prince Caspian? Do I value kindness above all else because of Anne of Avonlea? Do I retreat into myself because Sara Crewe retreated to the attic, stifling pain even as a little girl? Do I see fairies instead of flowers because The Borrowers made me believe in magic? Is my worst fear for my journals to burn because Jo March lost her first work to flames?
And, I guess, the biggest question of all — would I be a different person had I read different books?
The answer to the latter is, unequivocally, yes.