Confessions of a Binge Reader

I don’t have many clear memories of my childhood or adolescence, but when I try to sift through what is accessible, I’m struck by how adults’ small, random statements can have such an impact on a young mind. I was That Kid–the one who read additional books recommended by the teacher, the one who went to the library to learn more about obscure facts just mentioned in a lecture (and to the library it was, in the days before the internet; gods know how many Wikipedia entries a teenage me would be writing if I were a contemporary adolescent).

I recall my high school theatre teacher giving a lesson on the importance of color, and she read aloud personality traits of people based on their favorite color. I was (not surprisingly) the only person who claimed yellow as a favorite color, and one of the personality traits was a preference for fantasy over reality. I have yet to find any corroboration in recent web searches, and where Mrs. Welch got this dubious psychological assessment, I cannot remember, but I distinctly remember that salty-sweet feeling of being seen and also being slightly ashamed of it. You know the feeling: the pleasure of validation tempered by shameful irritation because that really isn’t a part of you that you want brought out into the light.

Well, it certainly was true: I devoured fantasy novels as a teenager, high and low, Tolkien and Le Guin and McCaffrey and Mercedes Lackey and trashy Piers Anthony, and then I discovered even trashier historical romance novels and gobbled them down like Little Debbie snack cakes. This was tempered in turn by a diet of Literature (such as a marathon of E.M. Forster’s novels after falling in love with the Merchant Ivory production of A Room With a View). Needless to say, I ended up with a rather upsetting case of moral and emotional indigestion that lasted for years.

The interesting thing about my approach to books is that I am a binge reader: once I discover a series or author that sucks me into its world, I cannot stop. I am not, in fact, a binge eater–I enjoy my junk food, to be sure, but I have never eaten an entire bag or package of anything–nor do I binge T.V. shows: I get screen fatigue after a few hours and will shut it down after a few episodes. But books: apparently, I have a single addictive tendency for literary escapism. Not sure what the cure is, if there is a cure, nor if I would want one if one exists. I suppose that is true for most addicts: do we want to stop wanting?

In graduate school my tastes became much darker (as they do), and no one spoke to me as Kafka could: “If one bolts the doors and windows against the world, one can from time to time create the semblance and almost the beginning of the reality of a beautiful life.” But bolted doors and windows are not a good permanent solution, and in my current 4th or 5th life (I am not sure which my cat-like soul is up to by now) I feel fortunate enough to finally read stories once more through the fresh eyes of teenagers. It gives me most un-Kafkaesque joy to read the puzzled satisfaction of high school juniors when they discover Murakami (although it is disappointing, albeit predictable, that Gen Z New Yorkers don’t seem to appreciate the wry absurdity of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming weirdos).

So, for my day job I unbolt the doors, step into at least a small frame of reality, and remind myself to find the beauty in exposed and unfantastic lives. And I remind myself every day of the immense power that lies in a random reading suggestion to a young mind.