The Center for Fiction has a lovely series called “The Book That Made Me a Reader.” It features acclaimed authors sharing their gateway books—the ones that inspired them to become readers. I love discovering what books moved authors as children and trying to find connections between that work and their work.
As for me, I can rattle off long lists of my childhood favorites, books I read and re-read so many times that their plots are more familiar to me than the events of my own life. But when it comes to the title of the first book that turned me into a reader, I find myself at a loss. I cannot remember the name of the book. What I remember is the moment reading became fluent for me, when the lines and squiggles lined up neatly on the page coalesced and bloomed into meaning, scenes, ideas.
I was in first grade, sitting on a little plastic-and-metal chair set up in a circle for reading group. I remember that the book was a hefty hardback laying open on my lap. I remember thick paragraphs printed in dark font with few pictures decorating the page, but that hardly mattered. What interested me was what happened as my eyes moved across the page: the whole worlds springing into existence in that mysterious, invisible place called my imagination.
A few years ago at a book fair in Athens, I discovered the book from which I learned to read Greek as a child. Had someone asked me for the title, I would never have been able to recall it. But I knew it when I saw it. Part of me wishes that would happen with my first grade textbook.
Even if it never does, though, the moment I became a reader will stay with me for as long as I have a functioning memory. It’s the moment I unlocked what words can do – mean and create and teach and transport – and discovered I didn’t have to feel trapped in the isolation of my own experiences. I could be alone and not lonely, in my head and in another world (hence the title of my book). And this has inspired me to return to books again and again and still.
Do you remember the book that first turned you into a reader?