When I was four years old, for reasons no one in my Italian-American family can explain, I picked up my older brother’s book and I read it. All these years later, I can still see the writing on the first page: “Look! Look!” I can still remember the thrill I felt when I realized I was reading. I had one thought that day: I want to live inside a book. In many ways, that’s exactly what I did. In fact, I read my way through most of my life.
My mother worked in a candy factory, stuffing Easter baskets and Christmas stockings. She liked to spoil us, and her paycheck often went to luxuries such as T-bone steaks, a chemistry set for my brother, and go-go boots for me. But to her, books weren’t a luxury; they were a waste of money. At our local discount store, I’d plop myself in the meager book section, while my mother splurged on new curtains. She’d find me there with a lapful of books, often sniffing one (even now the smell of a new book is one of my greatest pleasures). A Nancy Drew book cost $2.99 back then, and I’d hold one up to her, its yellow binding as beautiful as the sunshine. “I’m not going to waste my money on books,” she’d say.
But I did. I spent my allowance on those Nancy Drew books, even as I read my way through the library. I read before I fell asleep at night and as soon as I woke up in the morning. I read when I felt sad or lonely or confused. I read because I was so bored in my small Rhode Island mill town, where even the movie theater and Woolworth’s had gone out of business. In high school I lost myself in Russian and French novels hidden in my textbooks. In college I majored in English and happily read for four years.
I didn’t realize that my love of reading would actually save my life some day. But that is what happened. In 1982, my only sibling, my brother Skip, died suddenly in a household accident. I moved home that summer to help my parents, even though I was stunned by grief myself and couldn’t begin to understand what they needed. At night, I read to escape my mother’s tears and my father’s bewilderment over the loss of their son. I don’t remember the title of one book I read through that endless summer; I just remember how words comforted me at a time when comfort could not be found.
Eventually, of course, the summer ended. I relocated to New York City and began to write my own first novel. I even took a part-time job at a bookstore in Soho so that I could buy books at a discount. I fell in love. My heart got broken. I moved away from N.Y.C. and felt a homesickness I’d never experienced before. I made and lost friends. I fell in and out of love again and again. And through it all, I read.
In April 2002, I was a full-time writer living back in Rhode Island, married with two children—eight-year-old Sam and five-year-old Grace. One morning Grace woke with a high fever that I couldn’t bring down. By the time the doctors learned she had a virulent form of strep, she lay in the ICU, dying. Grace died 36 hours later. The next morning, I couldn’t believe that the sun had the audacity to shine, that the newspaper arrived on my front stoop. I couldn’t believe the world could still spin when my world had come to such a horrible halt. I looked at that newspaper, and for the first time since I was four, I could not read. Months passed, and still I could not read.
One day, over a year after Grace died, a book caught my eye in my local bookstore window: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I bought it. Then I went home, sat on my sofa, lifted the book to my nose, and inhaled deeply. It was like seeing an old friend again after too long apart, that smell. I opened the book, and I read it straight through. Then I cried. I cried for the daughter I had lost. I cried for all the pain in this big beautiful world. I cried for the gift that books bring us, for the comfort of words, for the human heart that breaks and mends over and over. “Look! Look!” that book called to me so long ago. I was too young then to understand exactly what it was offering me.
Ann Hood’s new novel, The Book That Matters Most, will be published this August by Norton.