A Puzzle, Piece By Piece

When I was a young child – before kindergarten, even – someone would read to me every night. It was rarely either of my parents, but that didn’t matter; I just wanted a story told. It was part of the bedtime routine, like brushing my teeth. There was something special about reading, that all those strange little symbols and pictures meant something beyond my comprehension. I thought that if I looked at the book just right, then maybe I could understand it, too. I knew what some of it meant (Wheel of Fortune taught me the alphabet) but I had to make sure. I asked whoever was watching me to read the same stories to me over and over. I had the tales of Peter Rabbit, Goodnight Moon, and Ping engrained in my memory through sheer repetition, so much so that I knew when the storyteller was skipping pages.

That’s right, I memorized Peter Rabbit before I even knew how to read.

Needless to say, the adults in my life were quite happy when I learned to read on my own. Oh sure, I had my share of toys and cartoons, but everyone knew I spent most of my time with books. Visiting a bookstore was like going to Disneyland, and hand-me-downs from a grownup’s library were treasures. My parents weren’t particular about the things I read; if I came across something I couldn’t understand, I’d just ask or pull out a dictionary. Most of my early childhood books were standard for the time. The Boxcar Children was one of the first series I ever encountered, and I loved how the kids had distinct personalities, could solve mysteries, and go on adventures without supervision. There was something striking about its first book, which focused on the group running away from home, dealing with illness and hunger, and attempting to survive in the eponymous abandoned boxcar. Though the writing was easy to understand and led to a happy ending, the ideas it introduced were pretty scary in retrospect. The same could not be said for Goosebumps, which introduced me to zombies, ghosts, vampires, and all those other stock terrors. Those books are laughable now (as anyone who reads Blogger Beware can attest), but most 80s-90s kids followed them religiously.

The mysteries and horrors must’ve affected me more than I realized, because I practically devoured Stephen King’s work. I started with The Shining, and it rocked my little world so hard. You think it’s scary now? Try reading it when the only character anywhere near your age is Danny Torrance. Room 217, man! Long, deserted hallways still creep me out sometimes. I moved on Salem’s Lot, The Stand, It, and beyond, broadening my interests in the supernatural with each passing book. You’d think that such grisly content might traumatize young readers – I wasn’t even in middle school yet – but I just kept turning the pages. My mother kept track of how much I read, earning me in-class awards for extra work and setting records. I’d go to the school library and borrow books by the stack, including relatively age-appropriate works like The Giver, Babar, Tintin, and Aesop’s Fables.

For my 10th birthday, my parents decided that I was ready for classic literature. My gift was a used copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. No, seriously. I’m not kidding in the slightest. I’m pretty sure I was the only sixth grader hauling around a 1,026-page anthology on the playground. You want to get a kid hooked on reading? Try making him or her read a short story every day, and ask them about it. The Tell-Tale Heart is one of my all-time favorites. So is Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whose brilliance and eccentricities made him stand out amongst all the protagonists that crossed my path. Even to this day, I still gravitate towards characters like Naoto Shirogane and Batman because of my love for the detective archetype. The rest of the novels collected and read during those years is like a Barnes & Noble classics section: The Odyssey, Les Miserables, Huck Finn, A Tale of Two Cities, The Scarlet Letter, Dracula, Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice…the list goes on and on and on. I’m not sure if I could accomplish that level of retention now that I’m older. By the time I reached AP English in high school, I’d already finished most of the required reading.

Looking back, I probably let books take over too much of my life. You should’ve seen me. A short, shy, quiet, overachieving, ambiguously effeminate boy with big glasses, no friends, and spends all his time reading large books? That’s prime bullying material right there. All I needed was a bow tie, inhaler, and a pocket protector to complete the stereotype. There’s always that cliche of people having huge personal libraries to look smarter. But for me, I read all those books because I wanted to. I was fascinated by all the references and information, and wanted to learn everything about them. I didn’t know anything about Greek mythology until I read Homer. The more I read, the more connections and themes I saw. Religion, psychology, politics, history, sexuality…things kept reappearing, but in different ways. Books became more than stories to me; they were complex puzzles with pieces that twisted and flowed together. If I could see those individual parts, I could better understand the whole. I didn’t say much, but I let my schoolwork do the talking for me. All of my teachers noted exceptional writing ability, especially when it came to critical thinking and analysis. Despite being so quiet and reclusive, I was often near or at the top of my class.

I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. I just wrote about what puzzle pieces I noticed, and everyone seemed to like it. I was surprised when I was chosen to do a speech at the graduation ceremony; why’d they want a shy, little guy like me up on the stage in front of everyone? Nor did I expect that my General Education courses would be so easy. Even my video game reviews – something I did on the side for fun – garnered a massive readership. I improved my writing with each passing week, but never appreciated the change. It wasn’t until I took a university course in Critical Theory that everything finally clicked together. Someone else understood how I approached reading? There were names for all those pieces? Deconstruction was a thing? The revelation was stunning, and I realized I’d tapped into something awesome without even knowing. I took that knowledge and ran with it all the way through the rest of my degree and beyond.

I still read and write, of course. It’s a not so much of a hobby as it as a necessity. When you’re a quiet loner, you need an outlet for communication and creativity. You’ll drive yourself crazy otherwise. Most people can’t hear me when I speak aloud, but they can read my writing all too well. I love doing critical analyses of works, be they novels, movies, video games, etc. I wish I could write and publish fiction – I dream of an endless library à la Borges – but completing NaNoWriMo twice has left me wary. I’m much better at taking things apart than I am at building them. There are few individuals in my personal life, and even fewer who’ve seen my work offline. Everyone had their own interests, and they consider writing beyond academics to be strange. There’s an unspoken sense of shame and contempt involved; these days, it’s as if writing isn’t worth the time and effort. But I know better. I take pride in what I write. It’s fulfilling and enriching. It allows me to better understand the world, and hopefully pass on that knowledge to others. Like the detectives I idolized, I keep looking for answers.

Life is a puzzle, and I see the pieces. Can you?

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Hey, Younger Me.

Hey, you. Yes, just you. Put down that Stephen King book for a minute and read this. Don’t freak out. No, this isn’t magic or telepathy. And no, this is most certainly not a joke. Just, look. I know you. I know all about you. Don’t ask how. I’m here because you need to know something. A lot of things, actually. Much of what you believe and perceive is wrong. Not all, but most of it. Your teachers say how smart and insightful you are, and they’re mostly right. But that doesn’t make you an adult. Don’t be too arrogant. You haven’t had nearly enough life experience yet. Don’t believe me? Okay. Try this: When was the last time you actually spoke to another human being? Forget stuff like school dances or birthday parties you never attend; have you even talked to anyone at all outside of class? Of course you haven’t. You’re too scared of getting hurt and bullied again. Besides, you spend so much time studying that a social life is nonexistent. You might think you’re weird, but normality is inherently subjective. Everything’s relative. Weirdness doesn’t make you a bad person. Nor does it make you deserving of all the guilt, stress, and abuse.

Yeah, I know all about that.

You’ve got to work on that anger, kid. I don’t mean by way of getting into more messy fights. Oh, I know what you can do. But it’s not going to help. You already know this deep down, no matter how cathartic being vicious feels. You’ll just wake up each morning with that rage and sorrow building, and it’ll slowly devour you inside out like a cancer. It’ll become all you think about. You’ll go so crazy that you won’t even recognize yourself anymore. Everyone around you will be terrified. It’ll be just like Wuthering Heights; do you want to end up like Heathcliff?!

No, didn’t think so.

So, what do you do instead? Avoid fighting, but never, ever be a doormat. Be assertive and confident, not frightening. Also, talk to people. It sounds really cheesy, but it’s true. You’re like Fort Knox; so many barricades and minefields to cross. Oh yeah, it’s so safe. No one can hurt you if they can’t reach you. They can’t help you, either. I know things have gone horrendously so far, but not everyone is horrible. Healthy relationships do exist, and they require work from both sides. People need each other. And you’re different, no matter how ridiculously responsible and independent you’re forced to be. Walling yourself up is akin to suicide; it’s like if Fortunato willingly entombed himself in The Cask of Amontillado. You can accomplish much more in life, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Speaking of which, I know you’re afraid. It’s the reason you’re sitting in your room right now with a pile of books. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason. Getting lost in a story is easy when you want to forget about your own. But you can’t, no matter how much you want to believe otherwise. Books are indeed awesome and you should continue reading wholeheartedly, but they won’t solve everything. You’ve got this fixation on the status quo; you don’t want things to change, because it’ll make things more complicated and you might lose what innocence you have left. You’re not afraid of death; you’re afraid that the rest of your life will be just as meaningless. The future is terrifying because your past was awful. You often ponder over how bad things are going to get. Even worse, you don’t let yourself live in the moment; you’re just observing at best. You’re so eager to please, you’ve gotten great at acting exactly how you’re expected. It’s all a character, and you know it.

Do something for yourself.

I don’t care what it is, as long as it’s something that you honestly want to do. Something that actually makes you happy, for once. As for the future, it’s already here. It’s not just some set date where everything will magically, automatically change. It’s an ongoing process, and it’s happening right now as you read this. There are so many choices and opportunities at your fingertips, and you don’t even notice them. Not yet, anyway. You need to start looking around more. There’s so much out there. Do not settle for the status quo. You can do better. Contrary to what you believe, life is worth living. Yes, it is meaningless. But that’s what makes it interesting. You must find your own meaning. It’ll be hard, but it can be done.

Don’t you dare give up.