An illustration of a girl holding a book open and grasping at a star.
Tamara Turner/TMD

There was a phase in my life when I spent more time living in books than in real life. I guess you could say I was a bit detached from reality, but that wasn’t always the case. Before books took hold of me, I wanted nothing to do with them. 

You see, since kindergarten, I’ve had trouble reading. Words on the page would disappear when I looked at them. I liked to think if I had control over this ability, it would mean I had a magical power. Unfortunately, I didn’t have control. Teachers would become frustrated with my inadequate reading fluency and voice their concerns to my parents. Worried, my dad would guide me through picture books like “Where the Wild Things Are.” He would point to each word and wait for me to sound it out. But since I couldn’t see what he was pointing at, he would often end up saying the words anyway. By the time we reached the end of a story, I always forgot how it had begun. 

Later, my dad told me he suspected I probably had a mild form of dyslexia. However, I was never formally tested for it because the condition wasn’t widely recognized when I was a child. For the longest time, I thought reading just wasn’t for me. 

Things only started to change when I discovered “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” I still remember the first time I saw it: the bright red cover sat on the bookshelf, catching the eyes of my 9-year-old self, beckoning me to it. I opened the book, expecting to be inundated with words, like the books I had to read at school. To my surprise, this book was different. It was filled with amusing graphics that piqued my interest and motivated me to find out more about the story. I decided then to read the book.

It took me a week to finish the book, compared to the two days my friends spent, but it was worth it. “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” was just so comical and relatable that it didn’t feel like an eternity when I read it. The book later expanded into a series, and I got the whole set, enjoying every bit. When my family moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong a year later, I couldn’t part with the series, so I brought it halfway across the world with me. Since I had both the English and Chinese versions of the series, I actually learned a lot of English by flipping back and forth between the two.

As my reading fluency improved, I started dabbling in more challenging series, such as “The Hunger Games,” “Twilight” and “The Shades of Magic” (all in English). The more time I spent inside the worlds of books, the more I realized how pale real life was in comparison. This observation was exaggerated by the mundane events of my life as a student.

Academic pressure grew more intense as I graduated from one grade to the next. When I entered college, life felt monotonous. I was so busy with coursework that all I seemed to do was study. I turned bitter and began to find faults with life, noting every way in which it was lacking. 

My biggest complaint was boredom. Characters in books have such grand adventures: they cast magic spells to defeat evil or fight for their lives on a pirate ship. Meanwhile, I stayed stuck in my dorm room, memorizing terminologies I would probably forget by the next exam. It felt so unfair that, during my freshman year of college, a little part of me wished I could trade my life for a fictional one. Of course, that’s nothing but a silly and futile wish because in this world, there is no magic to make the impossible possible. 

Feeling defeated, tired and drained by real life, I was slightly annoyed when my dad planned a family trip in the Western U.S. during the summer of my freshman year. He explained how the trip would allow us to experience and appreciate nature. However, I was dead set on believing this world didn’t have much excitement to offer. To say the least, I was not looking forward to visiting national parks during the hottest time of the year; I would much rather stay indoors and immerse myself in a book. 

One of the first parks we visited was the Grand Canyon. My first impression of the canyon was that it looked rather strange. Its shape reminded me of a book laid flat, its pages stacked on top of each other in messy piles. In a way, the canyon looked impossible, yet I was standing on it. As we strolled along the Trail of Time, I was further intrigued when I realized I was walking on at least six million years of rock formation. It was then that I thought perhaps this world is more fascinating than I had initially believed. 

We went to Yosemite next. During the day, we hiked along the Lower Yosemite Fall Trail. Impressive as the rock formations were, they couldn’t compare to the night sky at Yosemite. There was so little light pollution that the sky seemed to stretch on for infinity. Oh, and the stars! They shone so brilliantly it felt like they were just out of reach. Still, I knew they were light-years away. By the time their light reached my eyes, it was entirely possible that they no longer existed. Overwhelmed by nature’s grandeur, my knees buckled; I had never felt so small before. You would think realizing my insignificance would fill me with sadness, but it only filled me with wonder about what lies beyond, out in the universe. An adventure awaiting, perhaps. 

We finished the trip with a few more stops to see giant sequoia trees over 2,000 years old; basins miraculously filled with water in Death Valley, one of the hottest places on Earth; and beaches littered with sand dollars. Visiting all these seemingly impossible places helped me realize how this world is just as impressive as fictional ones, maybe more because it’s real. 

I still read books whenever I find the time. It’s a nice way to have an adventure, after all. However, I no longer yearn to be a part of fictional worlds because I find the real one dull. Instead, I try to spend more time looking up from books, observing the world more closely, through the eyes of wonder rather than bitterness. Funnily enough, when you appreciate the world for what it is, it becomes exciting and magnificent. 

MiC Columnist Tian Yeung can be reached at