I've always thought of books as sacred spaces. Like petroglyph caves, the Bodhi Tree, or meeting grounds for any faith, entering a book can elevate consciousness, heighten emotion, ignite thrills, and unlock doors to unknown territories. The experience of reading a book is often immediate and visceral. In our minds eye, the words on the page transmit colors, textures, and even whole worlds. In books, we find kindred spirits, teachers, and friends.
It would not be a stretch to say that books were my first love. Before I even had an inkling of the excitement future crushes or travels might bring, literature filled my imagination and increased my heart rate. As a small child, I delighted in reading Shel Silverstein. I wanted to live among the dwelling frogs and crickets and tip-toe across the floors of flowers he describes in “Enter this Deserted House.” I often imagined falling asleep under the roofless sky. Fairy tales were also early favorites. I particularly liked the unsettling beauty of mermaid foam and dancing red shoes.
Throughout grade school, I formed intimate alliances with Maurice Sendak, Judy Blume, Virginia Hamilton, Roald Dahl, and Beverly Cleary. Madeleine L’Engle introduced me to the dangers of blind conformity. Frances Hodgson Burnett taught me that sometimes children have very real pain behind their meanness and that compassion and patience can be the best tools in diffusing their anger. Dr. Seuss impressed upon me the basic values of environmentalism. Even in my adult life, I defer back to these great instructors in times of curiosity and crisis.
Some of these revered books have grown with me – or, rather I with them. When my parents first read The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to me, I learned about friendship, perception and how what is truly valuable is invisible to the human eye. When I reread it a few years later, I contemplated the meaning of greed and acquisition, power, and vicious cycles. By high school, I understood it, additionally, as an allegory illustrating that death is not an end.
Books make us think, feel, and question. It is precisely for this reason that, when young children are instilled with a love – a reverence, even – of reading, they are likely to carry it with them through adulthood. Rather than view reading as necessary homework, why not present stories and books as a gift which opens doors, shaping emotional and intellectual enlightenment and generating passion as well as compassion.