I’ve been seeking imaginary companions this summer. No, I’ve not gone “Big Bird” and sought out woolly mammoth buddies. I’ve been reading books.
Yes, gentle, reader, I can imagine what you’re thinking. “Is Snuffleupagus a woolly mammoth? And is he the best analogy you can muster?”
First, how the fuck should I know? Second, if you’ll let me elaborate, I think the comparison will make a bit more sense.
I’ve always loved books. As a child, I would observe my father reading almost every night. I would urge him to recount the stories to me — and he would. Sometimes he’d water down stories that were a bit advanced for an 8-year-old. Per my father’s recounting, I thought Watership Down was a relatively tame story that involved bunnies named Bigwig and Hazel. It wasn’t until I read the book a couple years later that I learn that the tale was a rabbit bloodletting that involved violent dogs, poison and murderous hares. As a teen, I would spend hours reading science fiction, learning of time travel from John Varley and the dangers of being a prophet from Robert Heinlein. In college, even as an economics major, I took several lit courses and enjoyed even the longest of required novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude and Moby Dick.
In recent years, I’ve allowed work and life to limit my reading. Sure, work can be hectic and, as any parent knows, raising kids is time-intensive and exhausting. But those are excuses. Somewhere along the way, I forgot how much joy that reading brought me.
This year, for the first time in a decade, I didn’t teach a summer class. There were no lectures to prepare or papers to grade. So I’ve been reading more.
It’s been fucking glorious.
I’m reading all sorts of stuff: dystopian fiction, fantasy, and young adult texts. I was particularly pleased that the young adult book that I read resonated so much. The novel penned by my friend Sarah Kuhn. I Love You So Mochi is a compelling, well-crafted bildungsroman with a Japanese American protagonist. One scene in particular has has lingered in my mind: Kimi, a teen trying to find her way in the world, visits her grandparents in Japan; she has a chance encounter with — a life-sized walking mochi. Yes, a young man promoting his uncle’s mochi business is dressed as an enormous ice cream delight. Her interaction with this person-sized dessert changes Kimi’s life path.
The scene sent me back to others like it: in The Lion the Witch & The Wardrobe, Edmund is fed Turkish delight by a stranger, the beginnings of a dangerous path. It also made me think about the movie “Cast Away,” when the protagonist — stranded on a remote island — is saved unexpectedly when the tide delivers a makeshift sail that returns him to civilization.
I’ll be honest: if the novel hadn’t been written by my friend, I never would have thought to read a young adult novel. They usually aren’t my thing. Of course, if I’d listened more to my aforementioned companion Edmund, I would have known better. “Moron, you should know by now that amazing things can come from unexpected places!”
I crave characters and experiences that I’ve never considered before. I begin to think of a world through completely different lenses and understand that which I am not. Author Celeste Ng puts it more eloquently: “The role of art is to get people to question what they believe.”
So many books, so many characters stick in my mind, follow me as invisible companions would. They become part of my inner conversation when I observe today’s world. Yup, in my mind I have conversations with characters. I am pretty certain that these “companions” keep me from being too holier-than-thou.
Without Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, I would not appreciate the loss of innocence as depicted in the short story “The Laughing Man.” In turn, I am far more forgiving with my two sons than I otherwise would be. Without the insights of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I would be far less able to recognize my biases as an affluent American man. And I would be less aware of the sexism I observe at work on a daily basis.
As an English professor, I am lucky enough to share the act of reading with others. Nowadays, young people just don’t read as much. Often, students inform me that they rarely read full-length books. Those moments sadden me. Then there are the times when a student completes a text and she is engaged. “That was a good book, professor,” she’ll say, and I can almost see those invisible companions that surround her.
David Weinshilboum, who is reading author Ocean Vuong right now, really needs to read a lot even when summer ends. He can be reached at email@example.com.