Certain smells can conjure up memories. A specific taste might remind you of a time long gone. A snapshot of a younger version of a friend may put a smile on your face as you remember the occasion when the picture was taken. A song from long ago can transport you back through the years to a special moment that the tune accompanied. There are many paths to the past, but few ever speak of literature as one of them.
Perhaps it is because reading a novel can be such a drawn-out process, especially as we grow into adults. Too often, we find our time laid claim to by work, chores, children, a significant other… In short, responsibilities. More often than not, we spread out our reading time, maybe over a few days, weeks, or even months. A novel doesn’t point back to one single moment, but several.
Still, I remember a warm July night nearly fourteen years ago, when I started a new book I’d gotten for my fifteenth birthday, I didn’t think I’d like it. Much later that same night, I finished in a fever. Instead of a story for my nine year old sister, I found breathless wonder between the pages. I’d never wished so hard for a fictional world to be real. The book? Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The next day I went into town with a friend, and I bought the two next installments and couldn’t wait to devour them.
White Fang by Jack London will always be my childhood, read over and over and over again. I never tired of it and never worried about whether there was more to the story than just what was on the page. Nobody had yet taught me about symbolism, anthropomorphism or what have you. I just loved what was on the page.
A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen is the boys at school, making their voices high pitched and themselves silly as they read Nora’s lines out loud.
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand is that spring when I started reading again, after years of not really opening other books than my textbooks. It will always remind me of curling up in the black chair in front of my brimming bookshelves. I still bought books as if I finished another every few days. Though I liked the novel, I had to set an alarm for ten minutes, and I was not allowed to get up from that chair before the alarm went off. It was hard to accept that I, who had always read everything and anything, had come to that.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was the first book I raced through after the long break. I was home from university for the summer, and my parents were away. I had laid claim to the upstairs living room, and I sat up until the wee hours of the morning without ever feeling that it was a chore to keep reading. I was happy that night.
Native Son by Richard Wright is that April when I finished my thesis, and really should have been reading other things. My professor mentioned the novel in class, but it wasn’t on our list. I started reading it in a coffee shop, and I had to fight to keep my expression normal at times. I squirmed internally almost throughout the whole novel, because some parts of it are so uncomfortable. But I also loved it.
Though it’s too soon to tell, I think I will find it hard to read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair without remembering the stroll around Portobello Market with my sister, and the chat with the old man there who was so excited that I still had my first Graham Greene ahead of me. I will think of sitting on the second story of a red bus, knowing instantly, as soon as I’d read the first sentence, that I would like what followed. I’ll remember reading at a Starbucks in London and racing towards the end of the book as the Piccadilly line took me to the airport at the end of my trip.
I don’t always remember what I was going on in my life as I was reading a book for the first time. Then again, not every smell or taste conjures up memories either. Sometimes a picture is just a picture, and a song is just a song. But sometimes, I do remember. Vividly.