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The Wallpaper of my Home: Part 1

Me at 9 months old, reading a book in Maine

When I try to remember what books meant to me growing up, I see them: not myself engrossed behind a cover, but the walls and walls of bookshelves, the stacks on the floor beside my dad's arm chair, the coffee table groaning under my mom's most recent library finds. No matter where I was inside that house, I was literally surrounded by books. And that is how they feel in my memory: like quiet family members, gathered arm-in-arm around us, a steadfast colony of witnesses.

My interest in books started early. When I was nine months old, we took a trip to Maine, and my mom recalls the big cardboard box of books she wedged into the trunk of the car, worried about bringing enough content to keep me occupied for a week. She doesn't remember when I started reading, but she remembers when I started memorizing--when she opened a book of children's poetry and, after so many times listening, I recited the whole thing to her. She got it on tape; we listen now and wonder, In whose world was this a poetry recitation? The words are garbled, my pronunciations colorful and varying. "But you knew it," she insists. "You were saying it. I could understand every word; I just don't remember what those sounds mean anymore."

Later came the chapter books, read so hard and so often that their covers finally broke free and lodged behind my bed and bookshelves. Middle school brought sports teams, new friendships, and occasional excellent teachers, but my dearest memory is this: settling down at the table after school with a bowl of Cheerios and a favorite book. My mom urged new reads upon me frequently, scoured the library for covers that would attract my interest. But I was a loyalist. I would take on new books on weekends, in moments of actual boredom, but in my everyday routine, I wanted the books I already knew and loved.

The truth is, I regarded books as people. As a child, I never wanted to go on sleepovers, accept a beach trip invitation with a budding new friend. I spent all the free time I was allowed with my family and my best friend; time not spent in school, I understood, was meant to be spent comfortably. Comfort meant ease, doing familiar things with the people who loved me. In this same way, new books were things I pursued when the alternative was staring at the ceiling. But old books were what got me through.

And so literature became the wallpaper of my home. I peeled it off and carried it with me when I left, through college and a dozen subsequent moves and all the way back to North Carolina when I returned a decade later. Surrounding my own son with books wasn't a decision; it was a lifestyle I could not have undone if I wanted to. And so it took a while to understand that some ways of life are not inherited, that my son would willingly live among my shadow relatives but might always regard them as strangers.

When I did understand this, it felt like a slamming door. Then, after a while, it felt like a door creaking open, letting a new kind of light in.

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