The clock strikes midnight and it’s officially Latino Christmas. After several steady hours of gorging and cracker popping, the time has come for the great unwrapping. The hour is twelve, as am I, and the algebra I’ve come to despise tells me that:
Presents > Everything.
After a full rotation of hugging, kissing and ‘Feliz Navidad’-ing, comes the only exchange my hyperactive, pubescent self is actually interested in.
After tearing through gifts which I’m sure were lovely and thoughtful but have left no impression on me many years later, my older (and much wiser) cousin, our host, hands me a weighty rectangular object. It’s solid. I tear off a strip of the wrapping and beneath, a sliver of esoteric runes and gleaming treasure wink at me from a cover. A boardgame…? Promising. As the pile of paper at my feet grows higher I find myself confronted by a curled, indolent dragon. Golden cursive shines at me, The Hobbit.
What. The. Fuck.
I was a good reader, well above my grade, but took no pleasure in it. On top of that, I hadn’t quite grasped the concepts of social etiquette or empathy yet. I look at my cousin in naked disbelief, my disappointment writ large. The disappointment is reflected back at me in his eyes as he comprehends my disdain for some of his favourite words. He’s trying to explain, but I’m not listening. I interrupt and ask him what a hobbit is. Is it like a troll?
I ignore the book for a few weeks until familial guilt gets the better of me and I force myself to crack it open. It’s beautifully illustrated. I read a few pages at a time, with difficulty. The descriptions are richer than anything I’ve encountered. A dictionary sits at its side and I learn more about topography in the first few chapters than I have in the rest of my relatively brief life. As my vocabulary and comprehension grow, so too does Middle-Earth, a stubborn root bursting through the dull, dead concrete of suburban Sydney. As Thorin and Company lose themselves in the Mirkwood, I too am utterly, wonderfully lost in this new world.
I quickly devour it and everything else with pointy ears that I can lay my hands on, good and bad. My backpack strains after each visit to the library, the book wardens dubious at my insistence on borrowing to the permitted maximum. When I run out of fantasy I move on to science fiction. Now I carry a thousand worlds with me. Dick, Eddings, Feist, Gemmell, Gaiman, Gibson, Herbert, Hobb, Huxley, Martin, Pratchett, and on, and on.
Friends come over and marvel at my burgeoning book collection. You’ve read them all? they ask. Yes I answer, and more.
It’s not until I reach university that my literary horizons broaden, that my taste matures. Some classics, some contemporary fiction. I haven’t outgrown spaceships and spells, but I’m beginning to understand that this world holds wonder too.
I’m lending my cousin books now. (And sometimes getting them back).
After a time, just reading the words is not enough. Maybe I’m carrying too many. I need to put them down. But somehow I never really manage to. Not for long, anyway. Brief respites. The odd furtive burst of creativity.
My love affair with words waxes and wanes over the years. Too busy. Too tired. Too invested in pixels and worlds in which I crafted war. Too distracted by the hyperactive, pubescent teenager halfway across the world insulting my mother because I just head-shotted him.
I spend too much time with words I don’t want. The ones that feed me, but don’t nourish me. They sour me.
I almost stop reading and was never really writing. I begin to forget Bag End and its courageous owner. The one who dared to look over the next hill and write about what he had found. But every time I walk past a bookstore I get an itch. I go inside. I buy books. Bring them home. Arrange them. Look at them in dread.
Eventually I move over the next hill and into the valley beyond. The valley is across the sea and covered in jungles and temples and sun. And it’s slow. I look at my books in anticipation. I’ll finally teach myself to play the guitar, too. I buy a guitar.
I don’t play it. Or read. I’m too busy. Incomphrensibly so. Completely strung out. In paradise, spending more time in an office than I ever have before, helping other people explore one of the world’s most beautiful and enigmatic archipelagoes from behind a desk. I’m eating instant noodles in my underwear and watching bootleg dvds because by the time I get home everything is shut and my brain is too. Et in Arcadia ego.
Still, the stacks of books grow. I don’t carry them, but they weigh on me. The pressure mounts and I succumb. I make the time and read the words, with difficulty. Parts of me have atrophied.
I remember the courage of a certain hobbit, what I learned from him and know my duty. It’s Christmas again and I’m back over the hill for a time. I give my cousin’s daughter a copy of The Hobbit. When I explain what it means she doesn’t interrupt. She smiles and says thank you.
Now I’m reading again, and I’m coming home, to write about what I found.
Sebastian is an emerging writer based in Sydney. His interests include science, writing and the impending techno-apocalypse. He never quite manages to tweet @sgbarlia.