If anyone were to ask me for a few words of advice or wisdom (excluding the usual Do unto others and Always wear clean underwear), I would offer this nugget:
Read as though your life depended on it—because it does.
I was a precocious reader. Began reading at four, zipped through all the Nancy Drew mystery series titles by eight, began a lifelong engagement with the novels of Charles Dickens (every last one of them) at eleven. It is unthinkable for me not to have a book (or more) on my nightstand or in my handbag. Reading fills every minute of waiting, whether to board a flight, see the dentist, get through a checkout line. I will never understand or accept the excuse “I don’t have time to read.” I say, TURN OFF THE COMPUTER! AND THE PHONE! AND THE TELEVISION!
When you read you’re not alone. When you read your mind fills with ideas and images outside of your narrow existence. When you read you empathize, imagine, feel, learn, grow.
There are some writers I discovered at just the right time in my life and they continue to delight, challenge, and intrigue me: William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name a few.
Other writers I encountered during adolescence or young adulthood but no longer relate to or enjoy: D.H. Lawrence, J.D. Salinger. If I were to read one of their books now (yes, even "Catcher in the Rye") I have to admit I would probably not continue reading. And then there are the books meant for younger audiences that I discovered at a later age but adored like Jeanne Birdsall’s "The Penderwicks." I reread it the way I do "Little Women" and "Anne of Green Gables," sentimental favorites.
Dickens aside, my other precocious reading experiences were "The Iliad" at thirteen and Dostoevsky’s "Crime and Punishment" at fifteen. They knocked me off my feet. I wonder if I had read them later in life they would have had such an impact. I am so grateful I discovered them at random when I did, browsing through the local library (my second home as a kid). Otherwise I might not have been as susceptible to their fierce, pitiless beauty.
Fantasy and science fiction are my least favorite genres, the exception being the works of H.G. Wells and Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Some authors I will never warm to, though I’ve tried repeatedly, like Vladimir Nabokov, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and——forgive me—J.K. Rawling and her Harry Potter books.
Reading poetry is an exquisite experience, from the delicate darkness of Emily Dickinson, W.H. Auden’s masterly craft, to Robin Robertson’s haunting incision of the Celtic soul. The non-fiction books of John McPhee and Richard Holmes are poetry in their own right. Dave Barry and Nicole Hollander’s "Sylvia" cartoons cure whatever ails every time.
And then there’s re-reading, authors and books I return to again and again for consolation, to meet old friends, to remember the person I was when I read them the first time. Because when you read you never stop encountering yourself, you never stop becoming.