A thousand lives

It is nearly four in the morning on a Saturday night. (Okay, technically it is Sunday morning.) Typically, you would find me on a dancefloor somewhere — Future, Black Market, TIME — but today, I’m packing up what amounts to half my life because we are moving in two days. And about 80 percent of that life has been books.

We moved into the house we currently live in when I was entering high school. I was already a voracious reader then, but not yet the kind earning her own disposable income (that will happen at the age of 17, when I get my first newspaper column), or the kind being sponsored generously by National Bookstore (because publicly acknowledging your nerd status does have its perks — let that geek flag fly). So naturally, the design Mom decided on for my room didn’t really incorporate a lot of shelving. (This is debatable. But no one else in this family reads like I do, so I tend to lose the debate.)

Mom gives me this exasperated, despairing look every time I come home with what is clearly another bag of books, but honest to God, I did not plan to own so many. (I’ve piled a small portion of them on my bed — as seen in the image above — so that I can’t sleep until I’ve packed them away. It was both a brilliant and terrible idea, but I digress.)

In hindsight, I should have seen this coming. It’s always been in my nature to want to disappear, to want to be someone else. I don’t know where my self-loathing comes from, but it’s there, and it has always been there. (My shrink, lovingly referred to as Dr. Sam, says it’s clinical, a chemical imbalance in my brain that I need to stop blaming myself for.) Those who know me well, or those who have been reading my writing long enough and are particularly perceptive, know how caged I’ve always felt. I live a wonderful life that I am grateful for (it’s just myself I’ve never learned to love, tragically), but all things have their trade-offs, and this was one of them. Books are an escape. A book is another life. Running away into a book is disappearing into another world for a few hours, where you are not yourself, and the world is not your world (sometimes it is a better world, sometimes it is worse, but always, it seems more interesting), and the problems are not your problems, and on occasion, there are actually happy endings, or at the very least some answers, closure.

You don’t always get that in real life. Real life tends to leave you hanging, worried and wondering about what’s waiting for you around the bend. Real life is uncharted terrain, and you have to just figure it out as you go along, without any assurance that the destination will have even been worth the journey. With any luck, you’ll still manage to keep your moral compass along the way. (Too many people tend to drop that somewhere early on.)

So I have all these books, and I have lived (and am living) all these lives in lieu of my own (although I’ve lived my own much more often in recent years — the stories I wish I could tell, but must keep to myself…). And I really feel like books have taught me empathy, and for that, I’ve always been grateful. Empathy’s not something that a lot of people appear to possess. You kind of find this out the hard way if you’re on the Internet long enough, and I’ve been around since 1999. But a book allows you to step into someone else’s shoes for a while, live their lives for a while, know their hurts and happinesses, their loves and their losses. A book helps you understand someone who is a complete stranger to you on an incredibly intimate level, and I feel like the more you read, the more inclined you are to take these experiences and bring them into real life. You’re not so quick to judge because you know that everyone is so much more than what’s on their cover. There’s a complex story in there, a heart, a whole life, countless moments leading up to this moment in which you cross paths, an entire context that you can’t possibly know about; all these things that create a living, breathing, feeling human being.  A world.

That is why I read so much. That’s why I can’t bear to part with any of my books, even though I know I will have to because I already know that I won’t have enough space for them. Even though some of them are really stupid and I’m kind of ashamed to own them. They have been friends. They’ve understood me.

And they’re always just there, ever reliable, waiting patiently for me to pick them back up when I miss them or when I am lonely, curl into a comfortable position on my bed or on my chaise, and return for another visit; come back home.