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by ROBERT MIRANDA
It was almost midnight on a late July evening, and I stood in the middle of a very, very long line with my mother, wearing giant round glasses and a cape that was longer than I. This necessitated making sure I didn’t trip over it every time I moved, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of it.
It was the night of July 17, 2007, and I was 9 years old. I had just finished third-grade, was missing several teeth, Alan Rickman was still alive and I had only read six of the seven Harry Potter books.
That last point would change in a few hours, which is why I was waiting in line, in front of the old Borders bookstore that once stood at the Montebello mall (may it rest in peace), to receive my pre-ordered copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I was a child obsessed; I needed to see what would happen to the beloved characters I had been following for years. I had dressed up for the occasion; and now I tripped over my cape as I jittered in place, excitedly waiting.
I began reading at the age of 3. It is something I have recalled to mind several times, as I reflect on my previous years and experiences, trying to determine pivotal events that make me who I am. My mother tells the story of how I would sit in a corner, isolated from the world, with a book, trying to decipher the sounds and piece the story together. I still choose to spend much of my free time this way, sitting in a chair, transfixed by a book. (Not much has changed in nearly 15 years.)
I spent my elementary school years poring over Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Artemis Fowl and the 39 Clues: all wonderful series that fulfilled my penchant for clever stories. I will always be indebted to Lemony Snicket (even if his ending to Unfortunate Events is one of the greatest let-downs of my life.)
It wasn’t until middle school that I began realizing the importance of reading novels that had stood the test of time: the classic works. I began this journey by reading The Catcher in the Rye at age 11. It was not, perhaps, an appropriate choice, but one to which I have returned every year since that first reading. I still read Catcher every year, trying to assess my ever-changing feelings and thoughts towards the brilliant yet misunderstood Holden Caulfield.
My reading list grew as my mother recommended me novels from her high school and college English classes. I went on, reading the works of the recently deceased but never forgotten Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Daphne du Maurier and George Orwell. When I entered high school and began seriously writing poetry, the worlds of John Keats, Stephen Crane, Oscar Wilde and those star-crossed lovers, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, were opened to me.
What reading really did for me, however, was make me supremely aware of the world I live in.
Cloud Atlas has taken me to a futuristic Korea; Shantaram made me experience a beautiful longing for love, poetry and friendship in a slum in India; The Sun Also Rises immersed me in the fast Parisian lifestyle of the 1920s. Before I visited Venice, the most beautiful face the earth ever turned toward the sun, I visited it in my mind with a copy of Lord Byron’s poetry, a gift from one of the people dearest to me.
And my favorite novel, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, made me experience world travel, artistic genius and unrequited love through the eyes of Philip Carey. And even Harry Potter took me to the magical Wizarding World within England, a full decade before I would stand in front of the real Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at King’s Cross station last July.
Novels should do this. They are powerful and great, and there is a reason why we are assigned the books we read in English class. However, the problem is that they will not impart their secrets and meaning to those unwilling to read or look beyond their words. Reading is as food; there are many entrées and choices available, and those who try a little bit of every dish and flavor will be the most rewarded. Those who only eat mac and cheese, or peanut butter and jelly, will be the ones that miss the most.
After all, reading is escapism, first and foremost: meant to inspire, thrill and enliven our lives. It has been the constant that has kept my life in fixed stability, whether I’m wearing my cape and holding my magic wand or not.
Even now, after all this time…always.