For the most part, I like getting older. With each passing year, I bridge the gap between the person that I am and the person that I wanted to be; feel like I'm closer to living the life I'd always dreamed of having.
But sometimes, when I pick up a new novel and then put it down some 300-odd pages later, I feel a sense of nostalgia. That thrilling feeling of discovering a new writer, of reading something that blows the top of your head off, gets more and more rare the older I get. It isn't that there isn't great literature being written today — of course there is. It's just that some part of me has aged, gotten weary, even jaded. Individual lines and passages can still take my breath away and a perfectly crafted ending can still make me burst into tears.
But oh, how I miss that old sense of being transported by a book, that sense of ownership and possessiveness that one felt when one discovered a writer for the first time. Discovering a new book or writer was like discovering a new planet — suddenly, you had to throw away all the old knowledge you had about the world and rebuild it again. I grew up as an only child in a family of businesspeople. Books were not considered sacred objects in my home and writers were looked upon with some combination of bemusement and skepticism. But for me, literature became a kind of religion. I don't mean this as a metaphor. I mean this quite literally — books taught me about love and honor, acts of kindness and selflessness, about good and evil, about the paradoxes of human behavior. I learned about the largeness and smallness of the world from books. I learned to understand my own seemingly irrational and contradictory behaviors after seeing myself reflected in fictional characters. It was reading that taught me that it was possible to hold two conflicting thoughts and impulses at the same time. Books that taught me that being human was a tough business — and not nearly as simplistic and one-dimensional as the nuns in school made it out to be.
When I read now, in my mid-40s, I read for language, for literary style, for intellectual nourishment. But when I read as a teenager, I read desperately, and looked to books for sustenance and as a lifeline, as something to appease my hunger. My reading was eclectic — I read Albert Camus one day and Arthur Miller's plays the next, and Hermann Hesse the following day. I remember reading Maxim Gorky's Mother to find the courage to participate in my first political demonstration; I remember reading Hesse's Steppenwolf about an isolated, alienated man who nevertheless craves human interaction and feeling a familiar jolt of recognition; I remember picking up Virginia Woolf's The Waves and setting it down and picking it up and setting it down again, being so overwhelmed by the poetry of her prose that I could only read a few lines at a time.
That's what I now miss, that terrifying, terrible, exhilarating thirst, that desire to be shown a new way to think and live. And as much as I miss that feeling of freshness, of newness, I feel lucky that I found the books that fed that thirst and pointed the way to a larger, more colorful world.
Books mentioned in this post
Thrity Umrigar is the author of The Space Between Us