Portland, Oregon has a great many amazing things. It’s a city of bicycles and rain, and former hippies sitting next to hipsters riding the MAX train system downtown. But the greatest thing about Portland is Powell’s. To say Powell’s is a bookstore is like saying Michael Jordan played basketball or Dizzy Gillespie played jazz – the label doesn’t do justice to the actual truth. The Powell’s main store is downtown on Burnside, located in a four-story building that takes up an entire city block of Portland’s Pearl district. It is the book lover’s Mecca, a place to find any type of desired book, silence, and contemplation. Each subject is found in a colored room, and each regular customer has her favorite room. Upon entering the store, I make a beeline to the Blue room – fiction and poetry – before stopping by the Pearl room for plays and the Orange room for spirituality. The whole place feels like a church or a library, the same hush as people sit in the aisles to look at books and read chapters and weigh the benefits of each book. It feels like the best part of home to someone like myself.
Powell’s has other stores throughout the city and the suburbs, and there’s one close to my friend Hannah’s house in Southeast Portland. The Hawthorne store is non-specific, a smaller version of the parent on Burnside. Instead of the huge warehouse-like feel, it’s more closed in, more tightly spaced. For some reason, when I visit it, I feel more lost than I do among the thousands of books downtown, simply because I get lost easily in the unfamiliar stakes and thus become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of volumes. Foreign bookstores often overwhelm me. But even just thinking about Powell’s and the treasures inside gives me a gleam in my eye, so Hannah and I often stop by after getting coffee and stopping by thrift stores.
I walk the fiction halls, dragging my fingers along the spines of books as is my habit at bookstores. I’m not a tactile person anywhere else, but books are all about the touch for me. I like to feel their bulk, look at their typeset, judge them based on their spine labels and front cover art. And so I wander through the stacks of words, opinions and imaginations of people here and people gone.
Hannah has already disappeared off to the right, to the children’s section. These days, she is only reading children’s books, or more precisely young adult fiction. It all started with a boyfriend who was a fan of the author Jerry Spinelli, and since that time, she’s been making her way through Spinelli’s fiction, books that celebrate the offbeat, the outcast, and the pain of every middle schooler.
I hold different thick and heavy books, thinking that I’ll want to add these to my collection of much-loved books, but I see in their covers the sighs of the adult lives. They just seem heavy. So I leave the adult world and join Hannah among the brightly colored and thin chapter books. She’s looking over the Newberry award winners, and as I read titles, memories come flooding back to me. I read nearly all of them when I was younger and reading was my only desire. Each title held a brief memory: my mother giggling as she read Holes, reading Walk Two Moons with my reading buddy in second grade, having my sixth-grade heart torn out in fear and love and other emotions I couldn’t name by The Giver.
But the more I looked at those books, I realized I recognized the covers, the titles, the feel and look of them, but I couldn’t recall all of the stories. In fact, I couldn’t recall most of the aspects of the stories I read so long ago. There is an obvious distance between when I sat down with them for the first time and looking at them today, but I remember these books impacting me, affecting me to my core. Why couldn’t I remember them?
I started remember those years, the frantic rush to finish stories as quickly as possible. So much of my identity was wrapped up in being “the one who reads” that I couldn’t help but chase that with all of my might. In my small school, where my entire sixth grade was composed of 70 students – the largest class in the K-12 school – one might think it would be easy to fit in, but in fact, it was immensely difficult. Everyone saw your every move, and at any moment, one action could ostracize you from the entire class for years. The outcast group was small, only two or three, and there was no mercy there either. I needed to be accepted, and so I chased after being smart and reading a lot with all of my might.
It helped that our school had the Accelerated Reader program, where students read books and took computerized tests afterward that gauged how much they recalled. Depending on the reading level of the book, points were assigned, which you could then spend at the library store. I had the most points every year, due to my ability to seek out the longest and most difficult books our library owned. I learned to read quickly and retain for a short amount of time, just so I could pass the test and get my points, retaining my social status. I wasn’t popular, but at least I was smart.
Somehow, that became my work ethic: work quickly and retain knowledge just long enough to pass the test, write the paper, get an A in the course. It worked – my brain happily gained and dumped according to what was required of it that semester. But then I lost something along the way. I lost the beauty of the story. I rushed through books quickly without thought to what they were, instead just focusing on what they could be for me – a topic for a paper, fodder for discussion, even a conversation starter. And so I used and forgot, used and forgot, used and forgot.
After graduation from college with a degree in English and a deep love for literature, I realized that my old style of reading wasn’t necessary any more. I didn’t have papers to write, discussions to start. I could read for fun. And I had forgotten how to do that. So I didn’t read for a long while. I buried my nose in my computer, watching season after season of stories that I saw with my eyes but not my mind. I started books, but put them down in favor of something that held no identity for me whatsoever: the television.
Until I found myself in front of that bookshelf, filled with stories of my youth. Through those tomes, I could track my childhood and I was filled with memories I had forgotten existed. But I still couldn’t name the main characters or the major plot lines. One book emerged from the rest: A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle. I touched it, as I do with books. And it felt like mine. I can’t explain it. I have this overwhelming desire to own books and to touch them and to make them mine. And so once I saw the price – $4.50 – how could I resist? The book came home with me.
I opened it and I remembered. I remembered why this book won awards, why children adore it, why it is still read by kids today though it was published in 1962 and written without knowledge of the internet or cell phones. I saw myself as a girl in it, while at the same time finding myself as a woman and a scholar. I marveled over the simplistic yet weighty word choice, the complex story line, and the effective characterization. The story works because Meg is exactly how every twelve-year-old girl perceives herself. And it works because it confronts the idea of fear and how it stops you from doing what is right. And it works because it is written with words that matter, and children notice these things, even if they cannot express it.
In that simple children’s book, I started to re-find my love for the written word, for the story, for the act of reading just for the heck of it. I haven’t had that love since I was a young girl, but I’m going to cultivate it now as an adult, because I need to learn to live in the process, in the words instead of the last page, the accomplishment and the need for an identity. I need to not just get through but instead thrive through and because of my life. And this is how Meg Wallace began to change my perspective, a children’s book began to change my life, and reading began to change my whole world…again.