Make it New: Reading for Joy
by Ann Marie Bausch
2016 was a year of profound change for me even before November 8th. My husband and I sold our house, quit our jobs, and moved to a new town to start fresh. I exited the traditional workforce and began writing and house-wife-ing full time. Craziest of all, I looked in cookbooks for recipes. And I started reading again.
Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of reading—my mother guiding me through Dr. Seuss and Little Golden Books over and over before bedtime until I could recite them myself; sitting on the front porch of our house racing wide-eyed through Anne of Green Gables for the sixth or seventh time (the fact that I knew the outcome already mattered not); hiding The Thornbirds behind a binder in algebra class. Green Eggs and Ham. Emily of New Moon. Gone With the Wind.
In college I majored in English. In graduate school, Creative Writing. That added up to seven years of literary study and analysis. Before that, no one had ever put William Faulkner in front of my nose, much less Tim O’Brien, or George Garrett, or the incomparable Flannery O’Connor. I will be indebted to those teachers forever.
But my full-time jobs had never left me with much brain space at the ends of the days. Before long, People Magazine was as good as it got. Maybe five real books in ten years. My brain simply didn’t have the capacity to take the good stuff in. And then Facebook came along to vacuum up any moment of consciousness that remained.
But when we moved, I had “time” again—I put the word in quotation marks because I had walked through it in an activity-induced zombie trance for so long that I no longer had any idea what it meant. I began taking chances on new titles I found in book stores, things I’d heard others chat about in passing. Suddenly, it was all about nonfiction. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth shattered my views of race and religion, my passions for reading and politics melding. I looked rapturously ahead to the election of our first woman president with these writers at my side, and the fullest energy and optimism I’d felt in years.
And then. Well, we all know the rest.
I wept, and then I went numb. Nothing was the same. I entered a massive creative blackout—what could I possibly write about when I didn’t know what world I was living in anymore? I had been reading, with great interest, a book about the history and evolution of world religions. I couldn’t go back to it. I didn’t want to learn. I didn’t want to become more informed. I wanted to hide. I wanted to escape.
Enter Harry Potter.
I am probably the last person on seven continents never to have read these books. I believe there is an Antarctic penguin somewhere squawking about Lord Voldemort. Fantasy isn’t my thing, I’d say, as nearly everyone I knew became rapt over the years, waiting in line with pounding hearts the day the next book in the series was released. Now—what the hell, I thought. Nothing matters anymore. I’ll give it a shot.
It didn’t take long. Suddenly I was awake at night thinking about the characters, figuring out when in my day I could sit down with the next book, catching myself smiling delightedly as the next whimsical episode unfolded. One day I bought a stuffed Hedwig (Harry’s owl) at Barnes & Noble—I had this sudden urge that I needed her. And that, really, was what made me realize what was happening. I wasn’t reading to learn anything. I wasn’t reading for an assignment, or with a writer’s eye, or to be able to check a Nobel Prize winner off my list.
I was reading for joy.
Harry Potter had given me back the way I’d read in childhood—for no other reason than to be swept away by a great story. It was about the smell of the paper, the swish and crackle of a turning page, zooming through paragraph after paragraph to find out what happens next.
In 2017, I want to carry this exuberance of the washed-clean into as many parts of life as I can. Fresh eyes for reading, for other people, for my community, for ways I can help. I have no idea where it will go, how it will all turn out. In the embrace of uncertainty, of being less sure, I believe a tiny seed will begin to sprout and grow, a seed of something all of us have known, maybe not since we were children, maybe in a way completely unfamiliar to us before now: hope. And when things get bad from time to time, you’ll find me at the Owl Emporium.