The local library was one of my favorite places during childhood. Even today, when I enter a library and get a whiff of that familiar smell of books, glue, and something undefined, I feel at home. It was, and is, a place of quiet discovery.
During every summer growing up, I was an avid member of the library’s summer reading program. The end of the school year didn’t signify a break from books to me – instead, it meant that I could dive into even more. I loved going into the cool, silent library (so different from the heat and noise outside!) and coming out filled with anticipation of what awaited me between the covers I held in my arms. Whatever the program entailed – number of books, stamps or stickers, charts or check-offs, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Not only did I love the reading, my competitive nature kicked in as my book count got higher each week.
Those lazy days of reading for hours on end are mostly gone from my summers now, except for a few days at the beach each year. My reading takes place at odd moments here and there – subway rides, waiting rooms, or the time it takes me to fall asleep at night. Nobody but me is tracking the number of books I read – I’m in a book club of one. I’ll receive no stickers or prizes. My name won’t go on any list. Nevertheless, I feel richly rewarded.
The characters I’ve met this summer have invited me into their lives and made me care about what happens to them. Their stories are sometimes funny, but often sad; some of them are clever, others bizarre; most of them end with hopefulness, others with just a bleak sense of resignation. But all of them teach me something about life.
The importance of breath came into play in two novels I read. In The Garden of Evening Mists, a damaged young woman is learning archery, while in The Sojourn, a teenager becomes a sharpshooter during World War I. Both learn to “Feel your body expanding as you breathe: that is where we live, in the moments between inhalation and exhalation.” I loved the images of connecting breath and movement, just like yoga. No matter what we are aiming for, the breath is what takes us there, and the space between breaths is like a doorway.
My passion for books was affirmed by reading Will Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club. Schwalbe and his mother, both keen readers all their lives, formed an informal book “club” while she was undergoing treatment for cancer. They would read and discuss books as they sat in waiting or treatment rooms. Schwalbe’s loving memoir chronicles the time by connecting it to the books. He remembers his mother’s friendships with people she had met around the world, and her insistence “that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal.” She was passionate about getting a library built in Afghanistan before she died. About one novel, she said, “That’s one of the amazing things great books like this do – they don’t just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently.”
I may never visit Malaysia or Sri Lanka, settings for three of this summer’s books, and I can’t relive the World Wars which featured in others, but reading about them has given me an expanded view of what those places and times are all about. I’m so grateful that reading has given me eyes to see the world, increasing my compassion for and connection with people everywhere. That’s the power of summer reading!