Defining Moment: Lost in a Good Book

Anna from The Particular Ordinary posts this challenge, which she co-sponsors:

Describe an event in your growing up that changed you. [That’s rather broad, so let’s make it tougher] It has to be something personal, something that you know will never happen to you again.

It’s no secret that I read a lot. I always have. There’s a kind of magic in words on a page, in plot and character, that transports me to all sorts of places. Through books, I’ve been in the night kitchen with Mickey, sipped tea with Mr. Tumnus, cried over Beth’s death (and later, over Jo refusing Laurie’s proposal), and been as faithful as Watson about following Holmes’s explanations. So you might think that the one moment that most affected my life was the one in which I first connected the sounds to the squiggly lines of type, first actually read. The thing is, I don’t remember that moment. I don’t even remember the process, or remember how old I was when pretending to read, while looking at picture books, became actual reading.

I do, however, remember the moment in which I learned just how far outside the real world I could travel, helped by books.

It was sometime in early fall of 1977. I was seven years old, and missing my two front teeth, and after about a month at school in Golden, Colorado, we’d moved to the tiny mountain town of Georgetown, home of cute houses, and even cuter shops, and often used as a movie backdrop. I was being thrust into yet another new school, but at seven, this was more an adventure for me, than the annoyance changing schools would later become.

I don’t remember the series of events that led to my placement as the only second-grader in a fourth-grade reading class, but I do remember that a girl named Dina (or Deena?) was assigned to show me around. The order of the day was to select a book from the school library, and read quietly, so Dina (it’s shorter than Deena, even if it’s wrong), showed me the library, and introduced me to the librarian, who impressed me so little that I don’t remember the person’s gender, let alone their name.

I was reading the Little House… books that year, and so I selected the first in the series that I hadn’t yet read: On the Banks of Plum Creek. I don’t know how long I read, or what went on around me, I just know that I opened the book and began reading about Laura and Mary exploring their new home in a dugout – I marvel now at how large LIW made a dugout sound – having actually SEEN such a house, I’m amazed that anyone would be able to tolerate more than an hour in such a place.

I’d gotten to the point in the book where Laura and Mary manipulate Nellie into wading into the section of the creek where the leeches live, and then the external world broke through the bubble of my imagination, and I realized I’d read through the whole class, and part of the next. I was new, so no one had noticed.

It was the first time I learned that it was possible to virtually hide in a book, and it was knowledge that would serve me well over the next three years.

I don’t talk about it much – practically never, really – but I’ve never met my biological father. He and my mother never married, despite lobbying by both sets of parents, and he was never part of my life. My mother’s first husband was incredibly abusive. I don’t remember details, just constant tension and fear, with flashes of details – my name spoken in a certain tone of voice freaks me out, beige classic VW Beetles make me want to hide, and I remember the flash of light glinting off a child-sized baton that I had, as he raised it to hit my mother, and later, as my mother and I were leaving for the last time, his voice as he took me aside and hissed that someday he’d hunt me down and kill me. I’ve moved past that time, for the most part, and don’t care to relive the details – there were good memories from those years, and I prefer to dwell on them.

But the thing that saved my sanity was the ability to completely lose track of reality, while reading, the trick I learned when I was seven.

When my mother and J. would fight, screaming matches followed by slammed doors, and days of tension, and sometimes physical fights, I’d retreat to the bottom bunk of my bunk beds, close the curtains I’d attached to the side, turn on a flashlight suspended from the far support, and read myself to someplace safe and happy. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were my rescuers more often than I care to count, but I often immersed myself in the classics too. In my head, I chatted with Jane Eyre over bowls of stew, or snuck through the forest with Hawkeye.

It took several years for me to feel entirely safe and settled, and getting lost in books continued to be my source of security. At ten, I shared tomato sandwiches with Harriet M. Welsh (from whom I adopted the habit of ALWAYS using my middle initial), at twelve, I mocked Arthur Dent with Zaphod Beeblebrox, and at eighteen after a rough exam, I played chess on a sailboat with a soulful Russian called Solarin.

These days, escapist reading is a more casual comfort, done for pleasure, and not to hide from anything scarier than cramps, or a bad cold, but sometimes I still have these reading-zen moments where reality is totally non-existant and I’m literally lost in a good book. I suspect one of the reasons I loved Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series is because his heroine is doing (in her reality), what I’ve only been able to do via my imagination.

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 Defining Moment: Lost in a Good Book by Melissa Bartell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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