My mother once told me that I could read before I learned how to walk. Whether or not this was actually true, I’m not sure. I have hazy childhood memories of white bedroom walls lined with pictures from magazines, words in red marker on white labels below: “Horse,” “Jam,” “Star.” My mother would point to each in turn and have me sound the letters out. Later, we’d walk a block to the library, and she’d let me pick out whatever stories I wanted to hear. “You were so curious,” she’d tell me years later.
I was her first child, and she wanted to do everything right. She read every parenting manual she could get her hands on, and taught me everything she could before I was old enough to go to preschool. So, I suppose that’s where it began. With my mama and me, with words that strung into sentences that unravelled into pages that fell together into volumes. I’m not the most reverent person, but place a good book in my hands, and I’ll like nothing more than to be quiet with it for a while. That is, if I still remember how.
Maybe I only know how to love things in ways that consume me. I must have been seven, eight, nine, crossing the street with a book in my hand, dodging cars in parking lots with the pages flapping and a neon Slurpee in the other hand. To this day, I’m certain that I need glasses because I used to thumb through chapters in the backseat of my parents’ car, even after dark, the warm orange streetlight rippling across the pages like the light from a flickering candle. “Rest your eyes,” my mom would remind me. I never listened; I was in the middle of a sentence, pretending I couldn’t hear.
I would flip a book open when I woke up, read while I ate breakfast, read under my desk in classes, sometimes with my forehead resting on the edge of the tabletop. “Are you okay?” a friend once asked. They’d thought I was crying. The memory makes me cringe, laugh a little. What was that supposed to mean?
It didn’t stop there. I propped open paperbacks and hardcovers at the dinner table until my mom complained that I never spoke to her anymore and started hiding my books. I cried and went searching for them when she turned her back to do the dishes, always managing to shimmy them out of the high places and dark crevices of our home, the plastic wrap on the library books crinkling as I did. My dad laughed because my mom had created this problem for herself by teaching me to read in the first place.
Maybe I only know how to love things in ways that consume me, in ways that can’t be sustained. My little sister is the one reading at the dining room table now, in between bites of white rice soaked in chicken broth. No one says a word.
Books in dumpsters. Books on the sidewalk, wilting in the rain. Books piled in cardboard boxes marked “FREE” in dim hallways. So many copies of Plato’s Republic, stacked atop one another, edges creased and spines frayed. How did we get here?
“I can’t focus long enough to read anymore,” I admitted to my friend Edwin.
“Same,” he said.
We used to be 10, 11, 12, passing new releases back and forth. He used to preorder novels from the colourful Scholastic newsletters and lend them to me once he’d finished reading them.
(Do you remember the hundreds of holds at the library on those new Percy Jackson books? Do you remember the way they handed the Scholastic flyers around, take-one-pass-it-on, to be scrunched into backpacks and lost in the depths of messy desks? I’d forgotten until now.)
“Hyper attention” is what literary critic Nancy Katherine Hayles calls it. Our modern technological environment is slipping its way into the very wiring of our minds. We are adapting to the demands of our world. Who ever said that humans were rooted in all their ways?
Our brains have traded in deep focus for the ability to cope with the digital age. We can synthesize massive amounts of information so quickly, and in a way that folds back in on itself. We are always craving more, more, more, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram feeds, scanning headlines and captions, entranced and bored all at once. The week I deleted Instagram for the first time, I found my thumb tapping the place on my screen where the icon used to be, compulsively, jarringly.
What does all this mean for who we are becoming? As with most things, I have more questions than answers.
It was the end of January. I’m learning to take Sabbath, that elusive day of rest, squeezing it into the middle of the week when I need it most. I had been so tired. So, it was a Wednesday, and just for that day, summer had loosened its selfish grip on the sunshine.
It was as bright and beautiful as a mid-July afternoon. I walked the 20 minutes from the house where I live, for now, to BMV Books on Bloor Street, the first bookstore I ever stumbled upon when I first moved to Toronto. I curled up in the back corner beside a stain on the carpet in the sociology section, balancing a haphazard stack of differently sized volumes in my hands. I flipped through them all, chose one to keep, then headed home.
Sitting there, on the floor, I was reminded of so many places in a city miles and months away. A Chapters branch that closed almost 10 years ago, on the corner of Number 3 Road and Ackroyd Road in Richmond, where there’s now a Staples. Village Books and Coffee in Steveston Village, the woman with the curly hair behind the counter who’s always so kind, the little filing drawer of customer accounts they keep, one of the cards with my name printed neatly on it. The library in downtown Vancouver, with its floors and floors and floors of shelves, so many sections I still have not explored.
A room of books is everywhere and nowhere and so very somewhere, all at once, I thought. When I’m looking for a sense of home in a city that is altogether unfamiliar, I find myself drifting toward libraries, bookstores — universities, even. Is that strange?
It feels like it’s been years since I’ve read for pleasure. I’ve started more than a dozen books, left each halfway through the first or second chapter — I am trying to remember how this works, I promise. Some days I’m not sure it’s possible. But when I stand in a room full of books, I feel small again. Small and filled with wonder. Is this what astronauts feel when they see our planet from space, hanging tiny and fragile in the cosmos? Maybe this feeling is my trail of breadcrumbs to where I want to be.
Maybe, as long as I can trace it back, I’m not so far away from that girl who, like Linus and his blanket, went everywhere with a book in hand.
Photos by Jadine Ngan