A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”
I was a late bloomer with reading.
There were far too many other interesting things to do than sit quietly with a book. It also felt impossible to try and get words to fit inside my head. I’d have to read it over and over again in order for it to sink in. Sometimes I still do. But back then, I was not patient enough for it.
The thing is though, I always wanted to like reading. As a young girl, I looked up to people who read “for fun” and desperately wanted to be called a bookworm. I remember a time when I was riding in the car with my mother who had to return her library book. She was, and still is, a voracious reader. I picked the book up and was fascinated by how big it was, “Woah, mum! Did you actually read all 526 pages?!?!” She smiled and said, “honey, the page number doesn’t matter when you love the book.” I was so envious of her discipline and wished I could do that too.
So, I figured I’d fake til I made it. I found a Nancy Drew book somewhere in the house and declared to the family that I was reading a very interesting book that happened to be 113 pages long and yes, if anyone was wondering, I would read every single last page. “Great,” everyone responded unfazed. The next morning I ‘finished’ the book and announced it to everyone over breakfast. “So, what was it about?” my mother asked, looking at me expectantly. I was stunned, I definitely didn’t read it and hadn’t expected anyone would actually ask me what it was about. I didn’t even read the synopsis at the back so I was forced to make something up on the spot. As I explained what happened my parents smiled at each other, amused by my made up story.
It wasn’t until my early twenties that I really got into reading. At the time, I had the world’s most boring job as the switchboard operator for a large department store. All I had to do was transfer a caller to the respective department and at the end of the night, gather the cash of each register till and place it in a safe. It felt like solitary confinement to sit alone in a cold basement literally waiting for a telephone to ring. Also, Facebook and Instagram didn’t exist back then so I genuinely had nothing to do but daydream and stare blankly at the wall. The boredom was unbearable and my mum suggested that I bring a book to help it go by faster. I agreed and suddenly I was lost in a book so gripping I’d forgotten my surroundings and was hanging up on callers to read one more page.
When people tell me they don’t like reading I really believe it’s because they haven’t found their soulmate book yet. If you aren’t naturally a reader, you need to have a book that matches to your brain chemistry and you will see that once you find one that fits you, you aren’t even reading, you are imaginarily flying in another person’s head. It is the most amazing escape and the best form of therapy.
Here are some books that have made a significant impact on me. There are so many good books I’ve read over the years, it was really hard to narrow down the list. I only selected the ‘gateway drug’ books; the ones that introduced me to reading and changed the way I saw the world.
They all feel like a part of me, in some weird way.
This was the first book I ever read for enjoyment. I was about 15 years old and we were on a family vacation in Koh Samui, Thailand. My sister bought it at the airport and read it obsessively within a few days. She demanded that I read it after so we could talk about it. It’s an insane story of life in Bang Kwang prison and the unbelievable suffering that this poor guy endured behind bars. His story made me re-think what rehabilitation meant and how to appropriately treat people who break the law. Every case is so different and this book only magnified that to me. I decided that I wanted to work as a representative of people who had been incarcerated abroad when I grew up. (Spoiler alert: that never happened.)
I remember buying this at my favorite book store in Ottawa called Chapters. I was about 22 years old and going through a difficult patch with my boyfriend at the time. It found it so upsetting when some of my friends would say things like, “just break up with him and get over it already.” Clearly, if it was that easy I’d have done it. I loved this story because it felt like having a conversation with a friend who understood how I felt and allowed me the space to feel it. Reading this book helped me understand that in most cases, people don’t want to be told what to do, they just want to be heard and listened to. Reading can feel like therapy and this book was that to my 22-year-old broken, misguided heart.
This is one of my favorite books ever. It was a ‘soul mate’ book that captured every fiber of my being and dragged me into the vortex of her life. I remember reading it while on vacation in Syria with my Dad and sister. It introduced me to the power of memoirs and felt like a seed was planted in my mind to consider writing my own one day. I read the story quickly and told my sister she absolutely needed to read it after me. This book and Banged Up Abroad are the only books we shared and loved together. A few months ago I saw that the Glass Castle movie came out. When I saw it I instantly wanted to message her and tell her about it. It brought tears to my eyes to see that, I’d love to watch it with her.
This was the first of many books I read by Augusten Burroughs. He is one of my all-time favorite writers because of how hilarious, honest and tragic his writing is. He never paints himself out as a victim even though he was raised in the most unimaginable way (Running With Scissors goes into more detail about his childhood). Reading this deeply revealing and honest memoir about him getting sober provided me with a greater sense of understanding and empathy for people who are alcoholics. Having had many family members who have addictive personalities, his way of eloquently describing how he felt made me all the more understanding of how this vicious illness manifests itself.
This book was pure poetry and one of my favorite books ever. I can think of nothing as heartbreakingly beautiful as this. I remember trying to save the last chapter as long as possible because I didn’t want it to end. I love the way she thinks and her way of transforming mundane moments of life into sublime poetry. Some parts of the book needed to be re-read and savoured like a piece of dessert. Reading this made me feel connected to being human.She encapsulated feelings I didn’t even know I had, or ones I thought I was the only one in the world who felt. It was just heart-wrenchingly perfect and filled my soul.
As you may be able to tell, I am not a big fiction reader. Which is a shame because anytime I talk books with someone 97% of them read fiction and are almost offended when I tell them I’m more of a true story/memoir kind of person. A few years ago I’d met someone who was shocked at my uninterest fiction. She told me to read Life of Pi because she believed it was the gateway into the amazing world of fiction. I was working at my monotonous switchboard operator job at the time. I started this book and the first few pages talk about boring religious stuff. I thought this is exactly why I don’t read fiction… Then suddenly the story plunged and I was instantly hooked. The phone rang and I hung it up immediately. Don’t bother me! I thought, this story is finally getting good! The phone rang again and I answered it, beyond irritated.
“Yes, hello?” I said impatiently. (I was meant to answer with, “Good evening. This is Sears St. Laurent, how may I help you today?”)
“Um, yes hi. I tried calling and kept getting cut-”
“Yes, okay. Which department would you like?”
“Wow, you are so rude! I am trying to look for toasters becau-”
*transfer* hang up, continue reading Life of Pi.
As much as I’d like to say Life of Pi converted me into a fiction lover, it didn’t. But I did love this book and the imagination of this author made it feel like a real story. Fiction writers are fascinating creatures to me, how they can create such an extensive world in their head is endlessly inspiring. But, still, for whatever reason I just prefer nonfiction.
This book saved me. Seriously.
I read it a few months after Elizabeth died and I remember laying in bed crying so hard I could barely breathe. It may sound strange to call that saving, but it was the only thing in my life that made me feel like I wasn’t alone in grief. It felt like having someone show me the way took through the darkness and give me hope that one day I too, will make it out. Again, this book showed me how important it is to share your story because you never how much of an impact it will have on someone else. Who cares if it’s already been written! It’s never been written by you and the way you word it just may resonate in someone’s head and bring them hope.
This book introduced me to one of the most amazing human beings in the world: Oliver Sacks. Most famously known as the doctor behind the classic Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams movie Awakenings. Sacks was a neurologist, doctor, writer, pianist, a motorcycle enthusiast who was a part of the hells angels, and an amateur weightlifter. This guy lived like a hundred lives. He brings so much insight into the fascinating world of psychology and reminds us all to remain curious of others.
I think there should be a worldwide Oliver Sacks day in which every human being on earth must spend one day researching a mental health disorder, or any part of the brain that interests them as a way to enhance compassion and understanding. He has been such an influential person who helps us connect to our humanness, I think we should all salute to him and be grateful such a person lived!