Last year, I sat drinking coffee with a friend. I was talking about something I was reading, and she looked down at my BOOKWORM knuckle tattoos and asked me how it was that I became such an avid reader and such an intense believer in literature. She asked if I had always loved books or if a teacher or family member had turned me onto reading.
The more I thought about it, the more I went back in my memory, the more I realized that my obsession with literature was born of my insecurities about my socio-economic standing.
My elementary school was populated by other kids like me. We were all poor, under-educated, under-achieving, surviving on fast food, sodas, and all the varieties of chips you can get from the corner store. No one in my school or my neighborhood took education seriously; they saw no value in literature, art, theatre, culture, politics. My neighborhood was extremely insular, I was living a half mile from affluent communities of artsy, NPR-listening urban families but my point of view extended no farther than the 12 square blocks that comprised my ‘hood.
My junior high school was located on the opposite side of my neighborhood and it was there that I was first placed into advanced classes and met some peers who were more affluent, who were artsy, who had parents who listened to NPR in the car when they drove their kids to school.
It would be hard to overstate the culture shock I felt interacting with these kids. It would also be hard to overstate the extreme embarrassment I struggled with in nearly all of my interactions with them. I always felt dirty when I was around them; my clothes smelled like cigarette smoke; I ate what I immediately realized were trashy foods like potted meat, and I had terrible manners.
My friends from the neighborhood hated these kids; they thought they were rich, bourgeois nerds. I however, wanted nothing more than to be a part of their world. It’s embarrassing but also telling that my life as a child of two heroin addicts in a ghetto was so penurious and so tragic that the lives of average middle class kids seemed as charmed to me as royalty.
When I was in the 7th grade, I was invited to a classmate’s house for dinner. Their house was a standard row house in a middle class neighborhood near the university, but I had never seen such a palace. I was so scared of embarrassing myself with my bad table manners, or by eating more than what was polite that I insisted that I wasn’t hungry when I actually hadn’t eaten at all that day. I also refused a ride home because I was ashamed of my house and didn’t want them to see where I lived.
When I was around these new classmates, and especially around their families, what I noticed almost as much as the things they had, was the things they knew. They had nicer clothes; they brought nicer foods for lunch; their parents’ houses and cars were nicer; they got their hair cut at real barbershops. But the thing that really differentiated them from my neighborhood friends was that they were so smart. As a child I had always tried to seem less smart because it didn’t win you any friends in class to be the teacher’s pet. And as silly and trivial as most of their opinions were, I was blown away to hear someone my own age expressing opinions about politics or current events, even if they were simply parroting the opinions of their parents or things they’d heard on the news. The fact that they watched the news or had parents who talked about current events was impressive enough.
I’m embarrassed all over again to admit that I was so impressed by middle class nerds who liked Star Wars and could actually name the vice president but coming from my background I couldn’t imagine anyone more erudite, well-heeled, and cultured.
Which brings me to books. I wish I could say that my love of reading and learning had been sparked by an experience like Malcolm X in prison, reading myself half-blind in an attempt to copy the entire dictionary by hand. I wish I could say that I was hungry to improve myself. But truthfully, my biggest concern was compensation. I knew that I was never going to be as rich as them, but I thought that maybe I could be as smart as them. Knowledge, books, education, they felt like the equalizer I needed. I thought — like Will Smith’s character in Six Degrees of Separation — that if I could read the right books, memorize the right facts, appreciate the right artists I could be a better person. If I could somehow culture myself, I could learn and talk my way into a better life.
Reading felt like the only way I was ever going to get a piece of what they had. My parents weren’t going to take me on a family vacation to Europe; they weren’t going to take me to Washington to go to museums and see the monuments. My parents weren’t going to take me to the theatre. But I could read Shakespeare at home; I could read about American history. I figured I would never see London but I could read Dickens and that seemed almost as good. I never realized until junior high how much of the human experience I was missing out on and I was desperate to get a little piece of it back. Learning seemed like the only thing that a lack of money couldn’t keep me from. And while my grades in school declined steadily year after year, I was never without a book in my hand.
I gave up on Goosebumps and committed to reading classic literature exclusively. I was motivated as much by a desire to broaden my cultural horizons as to validate my worth in the eyes of my peers and, perhaps more importantly, in the eyes of their families and parents. I had wonderful visions of being invited to someone’s house for dinner and contributing to a conversation about literature or history, making someone’s parents say that I was a well-mannered and smart boy and being invited to accompany the family on a trip to some cultured event, a ballet, a trip to the Natural History Museum in Washington.
I love reading more than I love almost anything. Books are my passion, and I hate to admit how much of my early interest in literature was fueled by a desire to validate my own worth in the eyes of petty, arrogant, middle-class nerds who teased me relentlessly for years. For every simpering, sycophantic gesture I made in the interest of gaining their friendship, there was a mean-spirited and cruel insult, an invalidating remark, a dismissive gesture, or a beating.
I suppose plenty of people have gotten into great things for imperfect reasons. I can’t imagine how many great musicians were only interested in impressing girls or living up to their parents’ expectations, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth to admit honestly that I started reading so much because I was so ashamed of being poor white trash.
But shame and insecurity can be great motivators. I don’t know what my life would be like now if I hadn’t been so insecure about who I was that I wanted to better myself.
Even if the people I was initially trying to please weren’t worth impressing, I am proud of my love of literature and I couldn’t have been more right to think that books were the key for a poor kid to open the door on the human experience.
As misanthropic as we as educated people can be at times, it is important to remember — no matter how obvious it might sound — that anything of cultural value has been created by humans and the enormous library of human works: literature, art, philosophies, scientific theories is every human’s birthright. We err when we compartmentalize human achievement into specific time frames and political boundaries. It would be myopic to say that the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne are for Americans, or that Wheatfield With Crows can only be loved by the Dutch. We are the same species, the same people and for all the drawbacks to technology, it has enabled more and more people to claim their birthright, their cultural inheritance, a piece of their own history.
It may be true that only the richest people in the world can fly to France and visit the Louvre, or own works by the great artists in history, or see the Globe Theatre in London with their own eyes. But the amazing thing about literature is that books are cheap to buy or free to check out from the library. Barnes and Noble prints paperback editions of the greatest books in history for six bucks each. We moderns take it for granted that we have access to all the learning once reserved for the richest nobles and aristocrats when in fact we should be astounded. We should be flabbergasted that we can read any book we want to read, that we can literally learn any piece of information known in the world.
Oppression can take a lot of things from you; poverty can take a lot of things from you; the world can take a lot of things from you, but no one can take away your mind, your capacity for learning, your innate ability to appreciate the greatest things in life. We only get one life, and we only get to live it on this one planet, and as this one species. We should try to get the best parts of it while we’re here.
I love to read because I’m grateful that people have added to the substance of the human experience and that I can have it for next to free. People have spent years composing symphonies, writing books, painting masterpieces, sculpting, choreographing, photographing and I can have all of it. My upbringing may have been terrible, relatively speaking, but my love of learning has empowered me to take back all the things that I wasn’t given as a child. If anything, my childhood being void of culture only made me appreciate and be hungrier for knowledge as an adult.
Truthfully, I’m not exceptionally smart, and while I read constantly, I don’t read as fast or in as great of a quantity as some people I know. But I don’t define myself by my shortcomings or limitations, I define myself by my passions and my priorities. Despite my intellectual inadequacies or my failings in school, I think of myself as an educated person simply because learning is important to me. I care more about my education than almost anyone I know with a college degree.
The fact that anyone would ever have to ask me why I love reading is a sign that — despite the proliferation of overpriced universities which serve as little more than fan clubs for college sports teams, and where the average “student” attends as many parties as classes in a given week — we don’t take the idea of education seriously enough.
I read because I believe that education should be a goal in and of itself, because I want all the enlightenment and fulfillment that the greatest minds in history have to offer. I read because I want to be more than I am.