Perhaps only a truly discontented child can become as seduced by books as I was. Perhaps restlessness is a necessary corollary of devoted literacy.
—Anna Quindlen, How Reading Changed My Life
She is a pale child with long blonde hair that’s not always entirely clean or tangle-free. She wears plastic gardening clogs to school; they’re too large, and other children snicker. On the bus, she dives into her book so deeply that she rides until the very end of the route; she is startled when the bus driver, alarmed, speaks sharply to her.
She is a plump girl whose bangs, mother-sheared, are always too short or crooked. She blushes painfully when called upon in class, and stammers when other children try to talk to her. She carries a book everywhere, to restaurants, on car rides. She takes a book to the movies and reads with a flashlight during the previews.
She is a tall, proud girl who wears clothes that have important names on the labels. She moves regally through the hallways. When she sits down in the cafeteria and carefully pulls her book out of her bag and opens it to read as she eats her lunch, it is part of her implacable coolness.
She is an angry girl who often sasses the teacher. She grabs her book and carries it to her accustomed seat outside the principal’s office. He has to call her twice, lost as she is in a different world, to come inside and talk about today’s troubles.
She lives in a mobile home court, in a rented house on a nondescript street, in a big house surrounded by sculpted lawns. She lives in an apartment building 17 stories high. She is a known quantity at the public library. Her favorite gift is a book. She has books she re-reads periodically, and sometimes she talks to the characters in her mind.
People say to her:
Get your nose out of that book!
Put that book down and go outside and play!
How can you read in the middle of this mess?
I wish you’d pay as much attention to [fill in the blank] as you do to that book!
For her, people and friends and school and all the stuff that happens at home are the bricks. Reading is the mortar; reading holds all the other things together. And so, in every chink and nook and cranny of time and events, there is a book waiting for her.
Sometimes she is reading two books at the same time. Always, there is a book waiting in the wings. If she doesn’t have a book to read, –if she’s returned her books to the library, say, and it was closed, so she couldn’t get a replacement,–she knows true, deep, painful anxiety.
She is a reader girl.
Some girls love horses; some love clothes; some have to be surrounded by friends and action all the time. Reader girls know that covers of books AREN’T covers; they are doors. Reader girls open those doors and enter other worlds as often as they can.
It is not that they are abused (although, sadly, some are.) It is not that they have families who neglect, ignore, or misunderstand them–although, sadly, of course some do. It is not that things are so grim (always) that they need to escape.
It is just that she has, whoever she is–fat, thin, rich, poor, any of a rainbow range of colors–an undeniable urge to know, to find out, to live for a while in that other world.
She reads, depending on her generation and inclination, Anne of Green Gables, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, all of Jane Austen. She reads every single book in a series, in order, if she can swing it–Nancy Drew, Babysitters Club, Boxcar Children. She reads Harry Potter and Hunger Games. She reads random books by little known authors and she reads Little Women and the compiled works of Edgar Allen Poe. She reads about saints and she reads about vampires. She reads, later, Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and Fifty Shades of Grey.
Her reading may go underground after puberty forces a transition, but her purse will be bulky enough to hold a book, or her tablet will have a reading app, and she will carry it with her everywhere.
She may be older, but she is still a reader girl.
She grows up to be a teacher, and she cleverly strives to inculcate a love for literature in even the hardest cases. She becomes a librarian who glories in the visits of the tough little reader girls in her branch’s hard-bitten neighborhood. She becomes a talk show host, starts a book club, and encourages a nation to love books, re-awakening reader girls who’d fallen asleep to the printed word.
She becomes a writer, snaking her words out to other reader girls.
She becomes a tired waitress, who nevertheless reads to her children every single night.
Does she find it–that thing she is always looking for, every time she opens a new door and enters a new world? Does she overcome the discontent, so that she lets go of books, relegating them to things of childhood?
Or does she conduct life with book in hand, stirring soup, rocking children, writing grants, ringing up orders? Does she make her commute bearable with audio books; is the reward at the end of the day thirty minutes of quiet, soaking in a tub with a book?
It is not that she is unhappy or discontented or deprived (although each of those things, in some cases, may be true.)
Her blonde hair may now be sleekly groomed, her footwear sleekly Italian, and she may spend her days in contentious courtrooms requiring her full engagement.
Her body may have stretched and thinned, she may have learned the joys of swinging a racket, pounding a track (although her solitary runs probably involve an IPod and a recorded book).
She may have a genial and interesting partner waiting at home.
Her work may be compelling and satisfying; her friends may be many, and her interests legion. Her children may have shining faces and accomplishments to make her beam with pride.
But the urge to open that door and plunge into that other world still throbs. If she doesn’t have a book in progress, she’d better have one in the wings, or she gets fidgety and anxious. Her life’s structure still includes regular library visits; she shops for books almost as often as she picks up groceries.
She is happy, she is successful, she is miserable; she is yearning. She is healthy, she is ailing; she is 35; she is 59; she is 87.
It doesn’t matter. She is, still and always, a reader girl.