Living through literature

Monday, April 8, 2019 - 11:39pm

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Illustration by Christine Jegarl

Throughout my life, I have been called many different things — a loud and little extrovert as a child to a loud and liberal feminist throughout my teenage years. With my high-volumed voice, which I can thank my dad’s side of the family for — I’m mute compared to them — I never stopped talking. 

Teenage angst may be a cliché, but it’s one that I embraced to the fullest — I was the middle-schooler who was infuriated by everything around her. Cliques were forming, girls were turning on each other, boys channeled their immaturity into mistreatment. I was making my way through the awkward stage with a tunnel-sized gap between my teeth, glasses that didn’t quite fit my face and extremely sensitive levels of confidence. My friends were ever-changing, with useless drama constantly pitting people against one another. With this constant lack of stability, I struggled to find my identity. Every emotion was confused with endless anxiety, a feeling so great that it often trumped my ability to adequately express myself. Words failed me — nothing I said had the power strong enough to convey what I meant and what I felt. It was all too overbearing. I needed to find a way around it.

I had one guaranteed spot of refuge from the war zone of adolescence: books.

The advice of fictional characters is often overlooked. As people grow up, they gravitate toward the idea that made-up stories and characters are childish, and instead of reaching for a fantasy novel about a dystopian society, adults are expected to read works like eloquent dissertations of the history of yarn. I’m not saying non-fiction books aren’t important — because of course they are — however, it’s essential that people do not dismiss the power of fiction.

Fictitious characters living in fictitious towns going to fictitious schools experiencing fictitious problems that to me, somehow felt real. Problems that weren’t my own, being solved by people who I aspired to be. Made-up scenarios constructed by an author to emanate universal truths.    

I needed these fake realities.

I read books like “Looking for Alaska,” a John Green mystery novel with an enigmatic female character, or “Nineteen Minutes,” a multi-perspective account of a school shooting by Jodi Picoult. Novels that had characters with traits that went below surface level, offering complex, layered personalities that I thought I couldn’t find in the people around me. Novels with female protagonists who weren’t afraid to unapologetically be themselves and male protagonists who not only respected this factor, but admired it as well. Novels that broke the boundaries of the toxic masculinity that most middle school boys were victims of. Novels that praised the bold and the different. And with these novels, I found a way to both quiet myself down, yet finally open myself up.

In these imaginary worlds, I was no longer the girl who couldn’t stop talking — the content of the novels spoke to me. Instead of accidentally interrupting the authors mid-sentence, I listened to each tale as if they were commandments sent from God. I dog-eared pages I thought were insightful and highlighted lines I thought were important. Each memorable quote became personal advice I could always come back to when I needed it. Because my teen angst pushed me to neglect the middle school guidance counselor I actually had, books took over the role.

One of the first books I found myself devoted to was centered on a girl who was dying. Despite its inherently morbid content, the story spoke to me. “The Fault in Our Stars,” another John Green novel, which, at the time, was not yet an international teen favorite, summoned my complete attention. Though it may sound hyperbolic, the infatuation I had with Augustus, Hazel and Isaac was unparalleled to anything I’d read before. My emotional investment was so powerful that my everyday routine took a backseat to the book. On a specific weekday, with just 150 pages left of the novel, I decided I couldn’t read in school anymore. I went to the nurse, pretended to have a migraine and cried my eyes out because “I needed to go home.” An hour later, I was in my bed, worshipping the plot page by page.

Until the end.

My world came crashing down at the conclusion of this “heartwarming” story of teenage romance. I apologize for any spoilers, but Augustus’ death felt like a crime against humanity to me — an ending created just to cause me pain. I cried to the point where I actually got sick — my sensitivity levels permanently affected, my feelings no longer held within. The novel gave me a sense of validation regarding my whirlwind of emotions in the life events that surrounded me. In my world of teenage angst, any sign of sensitivity in response to catty drama was deemed and exposed as a weakness. A lack of confidence was noticed and taken advantage of. On the contrary, empathy and understanding was discouraged. “The Fault in Our Stars” sparked a level of emotional depth that allowed me to see that these norms were not only immature but toxic. I was shown that feeling deeply for yourself and others is not a weakness, but instead a beautiful part of the human experience. This takeaway carries a legacy that I still find important today,

This particular story further supported my view of reading as a cheaper form of therapy, and encouraged me to seek out books as a way to find peace. I catch myself inserting my personality into the plots of books, most recently by becoming an onlooker in the Mitch Albom novel “The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto.” Read in a span of two days while on vacation, I alienated myself from the rest of the world in the process. Despite it being a family vacation to Mexico, I certainly wasn’t in Mexico, but instead comfortably trapped inside Albom’s creation. Whatever problems plagued me at the time were irrelevant when I was reading.

The countless escapes provided by the books of my past have shaped me into the person I am today. Some of the adjectives people attribute to me may be accurate — I may be loud, and yes, I may be liberal, and, of course, I’m a feminist — but because of books, I’m so much more than that.

I’m strong-willed like Hermione (“Harry Potter”), brave like Tris (“Divergent”) witty like Hazel (“The Fault in Our Stars”). Just like Alaska (“Looking for Alaska”), I act as if I am a hurricane, as impactful and bold as I feel I could be. I am a combination of each significant literary character that has deeply changed my life.

I am the books I love.