The evolution of what reading means to me

Graphic by Diamond Pham

From my early years to around late middle school, I inhabited the role of the quiet, shy, and excruciatingly reserved kid. My life was chiefly internal I withheld everything tightly into my tiny frame.

While I had strong bonds with my friends, and deep extracurricular interests to foster my engagement with the world, the extent to which I truly revealed my honest self was minimal. My friends knew me, but there was still so much more of me left to be shown.

I didn’t allow myself to open up to the external world, fully breathing in the sensations of vulnerability that come from open experiences. I remember a phone call with one of my best friends after an incident that I can now recall nothing of, except that it left me talking to her quietly in the bathroom about my closed-off emotional expression.

She had been ranting, laying out her bruised feelings, looking for my rational confirmation, but pretty quickly she turned to examining my hidden vulnerabilities.

“Why don’t you ever open up with us? Do you just not feel these kind of things?”

Boy, was she wrong.

“I just keep it to myself, listen to music, read, and think about it on the bus home,” I half-heartedly joked.

It was her inquiry that made me realize that my inward nature wasn’t just holding me back in general life experiences, but also in my relationships.

It was during this period that I relied on reading for my exposure to some sort of ‘external,’ albeit fictional, world. I wanted to be able to experience vicariously the excitement, adventure, and expression I tightly caged in my real life, without the risks of complete self-exposure.

Reading was my means of experiencing the mundane things my friends were already fully submerging themselves into. My lack of openness made me seem carefully composed and intellectually focused, but really I was just safe and comfortable in my internal nest.

While my friends took a step forward with their crushes, I buried mine deep within my consciousness, masking my feelings and disallowing the thought of interaction they interacted with me only within the boundaries of my fantasies.

Instead of directly involving myself with others, I turned to books like “One Day” to fill the romantic void in my life. I lusted after the kind of connection characters formed in these stories an untraceable and unreplicable draw through which the world keeps routing one back to the other.

While my friends performed confidently on stage or simply engaged with life freely and unapologetically, I turned to dystopian and fantasy novels for my fill of adventure. Immersing myself into strange but rousing worlds, I felt myself also marked as some kind of ‘chosen one,’ gilded with once-undermined abilities, experiencing simultaneously the world and the raw honesty of my potential.

I was so wrapped up in these other fictional worlds that I assigned a kind of romanticism to my emotional isolation I felt empty and somewhat lifeless without my immersion. Picking up a book I loved would be my elixir, and being forced to put it down would lay me back into my isolated emotional grave.

Though a part of this vicarious high can be attributed to the dreamer in me, which I still haven’t lost, I have, thankfully, grown away from my violently inward self. My experience with reading now isn’t what it used to be; it fuels different purposes.

As an English major, the literary and formal elements in books draw me in into a state of geeky ardor. It is a more distant, analytical, yet still appreciative glance at a story that has continued to draw me into the experience of reading.

I love how layers of interpretation coalesce together, and how each word or phrase can conjure up a number of diverging forks in the story’s progression. I delight in the phonetics embedded within the visuals evoked, which submerge the reader into a reality composed simply from a stream of words.

But more importantly, where I once romanticized my inward self, I have started romanticizing my personal growth aspiring toward the best version of myself. Reading is all about psychology: analyzing characters, their relationships with each other, and their reactions to certain situations in the contexts in which they are placed.

I find an allure in tracking these psychological facets in characterization, and every so often I find myself holding other characters up against myself. Those I have hated have told me as much about myself as have the characters I have loved, each of them carrying with them histories I can relate to in some way.

The qualities that each character bears are parallel to my own in some shape or form. The context of the story or the outcome the characters face shed a light into my own distant future, giving me a vision of my life and how I want to shape it. We learn about ourselves and the paths we want to take from books, but in a much deeper way than merely reciting the simplistic ‘moral of the story.’

Like before, I still overlap closely with the characters, but rather than allowing them to devour my individual self, I am able to retain enough distance so that I can live my own life, separate from fictional worlds, openly and expressively.

Reading now helps me to develop many aspects of myself, including my self-understanding and creativity, as well as to foster my evaluation of the world. This greater understanding has accompanied me in my quest to become more vulnerable within the world.

Tarini Sipahimalani is an English major at Pomona College. She enjoys drawing, singing a cappella, and tennis, but mostly for social purposes.

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