Books Build

My name is C. Alexander London and I have two confessions.

The first is that the C. stands for Charles.

The second is that although I have been a journalist, a librarian, and am now a full-time writer of novels for young readers, I have not always been a member of the Nerdy Book Club. In fact, for a long time I did everything I could to avoid becoming a member.

You see, I didn’t like reading and I didn’t like talking about books.

To me, when I was a child, books were those things that got in the way of what I really wanted to be doing, which was anything other than reading books. Some choice activities from my youth that I preferred to reading books were: poking things with sticks, watching television, playing video games, poking different things with sticks, and staring into space for hours on end, daydreaming, making up stories.

See, even though I wasn’t much of a reader, I loved stories. I loved making up stories and telling stories and hearing stories read aloud (I was lucky enough to live in a house filled with books. I didn’t much enjoy cracking those books open myself, but my big sister didn’t mind at all, and I spent hours at her side listening to her read).

I did eventually come to love books (with thanks to a few great teachers and authors), but I still didn’t want to be part of any community of readers. Reading, to me, was a private thing, a moment of silent communion between with the author and I didn’t want anyone getting between us. In college, I generally avoided literature classes because I feared they would ruin my love of books.

But my love for stories eventually led me to journalism, traveling the world collecting other people’s stories and doing my best to share them. It was doing that work that brought me from a private reader into the Nerdy Book Club.

In 2001, I was in a refugee camp in Tanzania, working on a book about children and war, when I met a young boy from the eastern Congo. He was 12 years old and he loved to read. He had little else going for him: he wasn’t terribly popular with his peers; he had no parents to look after him; he had no real prospects for the future, and he knew it. He told me things that broke my heart. He was a bright and lonely boy, very far from a home to which he could probably never return.

There wasn’t much I could do for him. I was 21, with limited emotional and financial resources myself, and I was leaving within days. I gave him a copy of The Little Prince in French and English so he could practice and so he could read a little about another refugee child on his own, far from his home, trying to make sense of things. I gave him the book because he loved to read. I gave him the book because he lived in a world filled with too little kindness. I gave him the book knowing that it would change nothing about the harsh reality of the life he was living, but hoping that it provided him a little inspiration for survival. High expectations for a story, perhaps.

Ten years later, that boy is a young man now, struggling, but surviving and trying to help others in his community, against nearly impossible odds. I later learned that he had started a book club with other orphans in his part of the camp. They would read aloud to each other; they would share what books they could get and talk about them (including, to my delight, The Little Prince); they would tell each other stories.

The book I gave him, and others I sent over the years, are certainly not the reason he survived, but I like to think they played a role. When we met he was very lonesome, but through books he found a community. He built the community he needed, one book, one story at a time.

It’s a fact: people can survive without books. People can even have wonderful, full lives without books. But they can’t long endure without community, and community is built on stories. The stories are not usually as dramatic as this orphaned boy’s, but the community of readers that can form around all kinds of stories has the power to endure the major shakeups of life and the minor ones. Through books I have made great friends and silly friends and had arguments and discovered parts of people I never knew existed. There are a lot of ways to connect with people, but I’ve never found one as good at defying time and distance as a book.

Today, aside from the writing I do, I also work with the global literacy organization, LitWorld, to help bring the power of stories to vulnerable children all over the world. Because the great thing about literacy is that the more people who share it, the more of it there is. It’s the ultimate renewable resource. As a writer and a YA librarian (albeit, non-praciticing), I have built my life around books, and I don’t regret a thing, except perhaps how long it took me to get there.

So I was led to the Nerdy Book Club in stages, by my parents who filled our home with books, and by my sister who read them aloud, by teachers who gave me the tools, sometimes against my will, to read and write with ease, and by a lonesome kid on the other side of the world who built a community around the stories he loved and the stories he had to tell. I’m thrilled to be a member of the same club as he is and I love to see it grow.

–C. Alexander London (@ca_london)

  Author, Librarian, Book Nerd