The Gift of a Reading Life by Cathy Blackler

“You should give it to Max, Liesel. See if you can leave it on the bedside table, like all the other things.” Liesel watched him as if he’d gone insane. “How, though?” Lightly, he tapped her skull with his knuckles. “Memorize it. Then write it down for him.”― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Books and their stories are deftly woven into the fabric of my memories. I can say without reservation that I have lived a reading life for the majority of my 53 years. I can recount book titles that have left lasting impressions, I have countless memories of bookish experiences from my own childhood as well as those of my children, and I am a firm believer in the transformative power of the written word. That transformative power, however, is of little consequence if it simply remains MY story. The true magic that arises from living a reading life is only apparent when you share it with others.

In the sixth grade I began to venture into the adult section of the Public Library. The first book I checked out from those mysterious, tantalizing shelves was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.  I have reread this beautifully written account of Angelou’s early life many times since. It is a book that has left a lasting impression. I am always struck by her unwavering honesty as she shares her story, reiterating time and time again how literature became her lifeline while navigating stormy seas.

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If  I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”  ― Maya Angelou

More recently I read a book that spoke beautifully to the shared reading experience between child and parent.  In The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, Alice Ozma presents readers with an homage to the power of this experience. As a child my memories include being read to by both my father and mother.  I can attest to the countless ways that this simple activity shapes a person’s character, so much so that I read to my own children each night and have fond memories of marking that bookish rite of passage that came with the procurement of their own library cards. While reading Ozma’s story I was reminded of the power of sharing the written word, and the need to shout about that power so all will hear.      Sharing your reading life with like-minded individuals is like dining on endorphins; the positive energy that manifests in a room full of readers creates a high like no other. I am so grateful to my reading community of Nerdy Book Club members and my Goodreads community. Whether we meet in person or online is of little consequence as first and foremost there exists camaraderie and an unspoken validation of our sacred appreciation for books and their stories.

The true gift for me, however, comes when I share my reading life with those who, like Marguerite Johnson, need a lifeline while navigating stormy seas. My students need that lifeline, and many of them do not even realize it. They have been adrift for so long that they have stopped calling out. Their voices are silent as they concentrate on maneuvering over and around obstacles that would impede most adults. In survival mode they view reading as something unfamiliar and arduous. I strive every day to change their perceptions by infusing our classroom with book talks, discussing text to text connections, connecting students with the books they need when they need them, and speaking to the power of books and stories. My hope is that they realize they are not alone.

As you celebrate this season of giving remember the transformative power of books. Share your favorite holiday books, put books on your shopping lists and tuck books into the lives of those who need them. Send your students home with books to keep them tethered to the belief that their story, like all stories, matters, and that living a reading life has the power to weather any storm.

Merry Christmas and Happy Reading!

Cathy Blackler teaches High School English in Southern California. A proud, card-carrying member of the #nerdybookclub, she is the current President of the Foothill Reading Council and is serving a three-year term on the California Young Reader Medal (CYRM) Committee. She truly leads a reading life, and still owns the first book she purchased with her own money.