There are few things I remember from before I was ten. It’s unfortunate, but nothing can be done about it. That’s just one thing tyrant Time steals from all. Memories. Yet nestled between my memories of holding poofy newborn chickens in Kindergarten and locking my brother in a cabinet are days spent next to my mother, stumbling through sentences word by word, leading me to literacy. The lamp we used to light the books marked the start of my developmental dash through literature, a dash which began with “he goes to the park” and arrived at “why are humans born free?” My parents are immigrants, so I didn’t see much television or many native speakers. As I grew older and mentally stronger, as my days became longer and my thoughts became denser, my speech started limping.
It was probably that the books I read possessed enough charisma to ensnare my worship. I repeated them, often without grasping their intent. This led to an interesting few years at grade school: once, when two of my peers were fighting, I threatened to shoot them with a gun to make them stop. I earned myself a reluctant peace and a visit to the principal’s office. Another time, I told a distressed, existential friend that we are all the children of God. Books had evidently given me an understanding of threats, power, and words that even a description of Foucault’s pendulum lacks, and the tolerance of a saint as well.
As that one Chinese guy in a predominantly caucasian charter school, making friends took considerable effort. The cultural isolation was enough to make a Chinese transfer student immediately declare us lovers. (We later separated after she saw me picking my nose). Sure, I had a friend in Timmy, a freckled, brown-haired boy, with light, emotive eyes, and an obnoxious green winter jacket, but sometimes that jacket would compress into a disapproving pose. No Daniel, he would say, I’m not going to play spaceship with you again. You made the ship’s electronic nose sneeze too many times last time. Whenever I pass by a recycling bin, I am reminded of him, mostly because he looked a little like a tree, and because I thought that trees were probably angry at people who forgot to recycle.
After those types of days, I would wipe off my boots on our family’s stiff welcome mat, shed my jacket, and occupy my favorite reading corner, with the lamp I always used. It might be raining outside, or snowing, or the wind might be blowing so hard that the weeping willow seemed like it had just gone through a particularly blunt argument with its significant other, but I really didn’t care. I would read until my mother called for dinner, and then read under the lamp til bedtime. I felt powerful reading books. I could read them hesitantly or rapidly, change characters to fit my tastes, change their actions to do my bidding. I was the fundamental god of my intellectual realm.
My teachers caught me on many attempts to replace reality with my reality. They would catch me smiling at my lap, unraveling how zombies could possibly exist and why they were chasing my favorite character Dink. They would call on me, expecting a precise answer to a math problem, only to find me blazing through space fighting with giant sentient gas planets born from electromagnetic waves broadcasted by green giant dragons. They would watch that other kid Eric take the wooden train I was playing with, expecting a fight, only to be surprised when I offered him the rest of the cars and returned to the quiet reading section of the classroom.
Thomas the tank engine can’t be a very useful engine without useful things to pull, after all.
It’s not surprising that books hold power over people, held such power over me, since books are alive. Yann Martel says it best using his character Pi as a mouthpiece: “All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways.” What can a book be, but mad? What else but a book can be so unpredictable yet make perfect sense? I have never read a scientific article and been impressed by its structure, by the unusual arrangement of commas, by the rhythm of several syllables, by the sentiments of a character. I have been surprised by the trick Peter Pan pulled on Captain Hook, or by the foundation of Harry Potter’s powers, and by the tangential humor of Captain Underpants. Books drive my thought discordantly, much like people, and like people, they have a will of their own.
They say that authors write books but it’s more like they plant them. They build a garden, surrounded by the barriers of paper and intimidating hardcover binding, sometimes split with ornate gold letters, other times displaying an interesting picture. They hoe and water the garden, and plant some seeds. They tend to it for a moment and then leave for greener pastures. Some, like Edgar Allen Poe, die alone in the streets of Boston in only his underwear. Others still live and sometimes return to trim their garden, but it is too late. The plants have overgrown their boundaries and intertwined in intricate, marvelous symbiosis, and cutting off any leaf would kill the completeness of wholesome monstrosity. The author might wonder, “I only put carrots and peas in, how did I end up with a cyan cross between cauliflower and eggplant?”
Then the day of the farmer’s market comes, only the farmers can’t get the fruit, vegetables, herbs, or whatevers they’ve grown, so the buyers are forced to travel down to the fields and pick some plant matter for themselves. Some are nearsighted and can only reach for the periphery, while others stretch, bend, contort, squeeze, and breathe in all sorts of ways to reach the seemingly juicier fruit inside. Others grab the easy, low hanging fruit. The buyers return to the market square and discover that everyone has their own unique, relatively similar fruit-vegetable thing, and people begin to try each other’s.
Maybe books don’t actually grow trees. But their pages contain much more than the sum of their parts. Ideas interact with each other, and that would be enough to produce enough complexity to satiate me, but the authors themselves bring interesting ideas. Ideas that I would have to live an entirely different life to arrive at. Old, archaic ideas from the far sands of Persia or the mountains of Greece. New, fresh ideas from the shining chapels of the Ivies and the bustling hubs of cities. Dangerous, controversial ideas from overzealous celebrities, politicians, technocrats and religious fanatics. Only seeds can beget more seeds after all. I can only take from what I can receive.
It is true that books are like overgrown gardens, filled with organic complexity and interaction, but is that not the same for people? Two people will catch differently a book thrown at them. They are both complex, with lives, passions, emotions, memories, beliefs, morals, and faults. Talking with another person also forces me into a different pace, a different style of thinking that involves perhaps more compassion or more logic or more inanity. People change each other just by interacting, not because their words are strong, but because the mechanisms that run them are delicate enough to spiral into a completely different parametric motion when touched.
I’m sure that when I read books I felt powerful. But I’m also sure that I was not at all. No matter how much you can imagine, construe, you can only work with ideas you’ve given. This is also true for the author, and this is also true for the book, no matter how much entanglement it undergoes. But books can still come from completely different swathes of life than yours, where the pumpkins are blue and the corn is a ruddy red, and people are used to it. Furthermore, those exotic gardens have a vitality people do not. As long as there’s somebody there to conserve them, to water them with thought, to harvest them with interpretations, they will blossom and festoon themselves with the seeds of thought for the next generation. Not even tyrant Time can stop them. Books are powerful, other people are powerful, but I do not actually have agency. The chirality of the human soul is determined by the machinations of others.
People enact change upon one another, and upon one another, and upon one another. Thus the perpetual motion machine of intellectual evolution wobbles onward. The parts of this cycle seem impossible to unravel, but the broad strokes of its motion are bold and easy, like the blurring together of disparate colors in a pointillist painting. And each book captures within its boundaries a portion of this churning vortex that sucks the reader in and produces an entirely new person afterwards. They must be taking people on journeys because I’ve experienced lives that I cannot have possibly experienced. Books are complicated, and people are complicated. Some businesses are complicated enough that they are legally thought of as people, with their own rights and taxes to pay. Shouldn’t we be thinking of books as people then? They are mad, so aren’t they living?
I know many people who have chiseled away at the mold that my fluid identity is cast in. My father and mother, for better or for worse, subjected the mold to pressures that warped and damaged its frame. The shape of my mind is therefore fittingly unusual. Holden Caulfield made me react and reflect on the realities of today’s society, further twisting the cast. Atticus Finch made me question the foundations of my moral thought, straightening and strengthening some portions, but corroding others. Edmond Danton took me on a trek around the world, heightening the cast’s mountains and deepening the cast’s valley. When I close each book I read, a seed is planted within me. and I hope that in time these seeds combine to produce something interesting in its own right, I hope the world can accept the plant that grew out of the cast instead of the expected polished metal.