In eighth grade, I thought Jennifer Fever, the dark-haired girl who sat behind me in homeroom, was an alien. Our class had organized a read-a-thon to raise money for the library, and in one month, Jennifer read 34 books. I couldn't believe it. Surely, she was from some faraway planet populated by creatures that didn't own television sets. How could a human being, a 13-year-old no less, read 34 books in one month?
I had read three books. And by "read," I mean skimmed. And by "skimmed," I mean opened and placed them on my lap while watching cartoons.
Who had time to read? In addition to my daily animation fix, I had a basketball that required dribbling, a baseball that required throwing, and a volleyball that required volleying. And it wasn't as if my bike could ride itself.
Besides, reading was boring. And if I wanted to be bored, it would be much easier just to pay attention during Mr. Kearly's social studies class.
Years later, during my third year of university (my first in the engineering program), as I walked by the bulging shelves in the library one day, I realized something: I had no memory of ever reading a book for pleasure. Indeed, I had delved into many books for my studies. But it would be a stretch to say poring over the nitty-gritty of the laws of thermodynamics had been a pleasurable activity.
After high school, my education had become very narrow: computer engineering, mathematics, physics, and not much else. If you were curious about computer design, I was your man. (Hardware or software?)
If you were struggling with a math assignment, I was a good friend to have. (Calculus or linear algebra?) I could even have helped you wrap your mind around a scientific law. (Newton's or Bohr's?)
But I craved to be more well-rounded. There was a world of knowledge outside science and engineering, and I was tired of being ignorant of it. So I decided I would become a reader – whether I liked it or not.
I dived into book after book. On pure grit alone, I finished each one I started. I had hoped they would captivate me, but they didn't. Still, I soldiered on.
Soon, though, my resolve weakened. Halfway through a book, I'd start skipping paragraphs, pages, and, sometimes, entire chapters. The thought crept into my mind: This isn't worth it. My literary experiment appeared to be proving my childhood hypothesis: Some people are born readers, some aren't. I was, it seemed, a reluctant member of the "literate lot."
Then something changed.
While reading a collection of essays by Stephen Leacock, the late Canadian humorist, I found myself laughing out loud. The next book I picked up, Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance," an excruciating tale of three friends in India, brought me to tears. And after I was a chapter into Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air," a first-person account of a tragedy on Mt. Everest, I was loath to put it down.
Perhaps my attention span, once shorter than the time it takes a politician to break an election promise, had expanded. Maybe I needed time to overcome my misconceptions about reading. I don't know. But I no longer viewed a book merely as something to conquer.
Instead of flipping ahead to determine how many pages remained until I could finally stick another tome back on the shelf, I would slow down and savor each sentence.
In short, the bookworm within me had awakened.
Today, I carry a book (if not two or three) with me wherever I go. A delay at my dentist's office no longer frustrates me; it's simply extra time to enjoy another E.B. White essay.
An hour-long commute on the bus is not an inconvenience; rather, it's a chance to devour a few chapters of Malcolm Gladwell's latest offering. Sometimes, I wish my commute was longer.
As a child, I thought book lovers were a strange breed. Now I pity those who spend their evenings in front of the television watching neighbors painting each others' bedrooms or skinny blonds eating beetles on "reality" shows.
To many, the local library is as foreign as the Amazon jungle. They don't know what they're missing.
Jennifer: If you happen to be reading this, I'm sorry I thought you were an alien. There's nothing strange about loving to read.
As for spreading the rumor that you once ate a worm during recess: That was Tim Kelly, not me.
But in kindergarten he used to eat glue, so who was he to talk?