Finding My Way Back To Books

The week after my father died, I could not read. I was sixteen years old and had been consuming books for most of my life but, when death came, I lost not just my will to read but my ability. I looked at words and they made no sense. Words no longer created worlds, they were illegible markings on a page, signs and symbols that confounded me. I was in a state of grieving that's never really stopped.

That week was scary, not just because I couldn't read. In that week, we planned his funeral and buried him. It was the first week without my father. The first week of a new life that I could neither recognize nor bear. Perhaps it makes sense that when I lost my father, I lost the language I had relied on up to that point, lost my passion for books, lost my writing voice.

T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" broke the aphasic spell. I held a book of poems in my hands and found Prufrock and started reading it aloud to myself and that's how I found my way back to words. It seems fitting that Modernism broke the spell, with its fragmented poetry, its ambiguity, its break from tradition to find new forms of expressing life and consciousness. I read Prufrock and I felt like I was breathing again. I believed in words again. I've never stopped believing in them. What else do I have? I am godless and fatherless, but I have language. I have books.

I'm sharing this story because Dylan Landis writes of a similar loss of the desire to read before and after her parents died. At The New York Times, she writes: "Words on paper had been reduced by grief to what painters call marks. As such, they had lost their power to resonate. So I found myself grieving, too, what I took to be an understandable loss of concentration." Eventually, she's able to read again but the genre she chooses is interesting and, at the same time, perfect for the situation she finds herself in:
Finally, nine months after my mother’s death, the ability to read slowly began to return. I found I could read for about 15 minutes at a time — a fraction of the two-hour plunges I once took. On rare occasions, I would fall into a state of grace and once again a book consumed me. Yet my subject matter seemed curiously circumscribed. Long ago, biologists used to say “ontogeny repeats phylogeny,” meaning fetal growth reiterates the stages of evolution. (It only looks that way.) My newly recovered ability to dwell on words may have reiterated the stages of my life. All I could relish, at that stage, were novels with young female protagonists, 14-, 15-year-olds, troubled, like the girls I write about and once identified with. “My Brilliant Friend,” by Elena Ferrante. “Sister Golden Hair,” by Darcey Steinke. “The Scamp,” by Jennifer Pashley.
I’ve heard it said that we don’t mature fully till we lose both parents. Perhaps I had to relive, in these novels, my early adolescence before I could start to find that new adulthood — and lose myself in reading again.

In the years since my father's death, I've found myself reading more Young Adult books. It's ironic that, when I was a precocious teenager, I preferred to read adult books. I liked Woolf and Plath, Fitzgerald and Conrad (I still love them), but, in many ways, I didn't really have a childhood. My father became sick just as I hit thirteen and then died three years later. My innocence was gone. I grew up very fast, or maybe I was always grown up. Losing him when I was sixteen seemed to freeze me at that age. I'm both an old soul and an immature adolescent even now that I'm in my twenties. Young Adult novels have been a way for me to re-live my childhood, to be an actual kid and think about the feelings and experiences of being young. Young Adult literature has given me permission to go through adolescence and it's been quite a comfort.

I believe strongly in the power of books to help us survive trauma but, at the same time, it's important to acknowledge that confronting the loss of a loved once shakes one's very foundation. You think you will react in a certain way when you might have the opposite reaction. I never thought I'd lose my ability to read. I never thought I'd stop being entranced by language. I never thought that words would not save me but, at the darkest moment of my life, nothing could save me. I had to experience that darkness and do my best to find my way back to life and back to literature.