Why we read

There’s a book I don’t remember well, though I can remember precisely where I found it in my elementary school library -- three yards to the right of the door, in the middle of the third shelf from the floor.

I was, and remain, a compulsive reader. Back then, I read on the school bus, at the bus stop in the cold, at the dinner table, beneath the sheets and for hours sometimes in the only room with a door that locked, the bathroom, despite my sister’s pounding. This book was about a solitary little boy who, as I did, had a nervous habit of tapping everything he touched, and counting the combinations of taps. One day, he tapped a wall of stone. A door appeared. Behind it was a different world, not better really, but brighter and less dull. I read for the same reason that he tapped: to look for doors, to push through walls.

-- Ben Ehrenreich is the author of the novel “The Suitors.”


Confession: I am an abuser of books. I break their spines; I underline passages with felt-tip pen. Once, on vacation, I actually dropped Joyce Maynard’s delectable “Where Love Goes” -- a beach-book “Anna Karenina” that I like to re-read every three years -- into the Jacuzzi. For my books, it’s spring break at Ft. Lauderdale and they’re scared. This is all to the horror of a fusty male friend who keeps his British first editions in a humidity-controlled room, as though they were wine. I see now, though, that my 7- and 8-year-old daughters have caught their mother’s bad habit. Across the back seat of our filthy wagon are capsized or spread-eagled “Goosebumps,” Jenny B. Joneses, “Beastmasters.” They are smeared in juice and Cheetos, and, to my horror recently, I saw this terrifying pink thing called “The Puppies of Princess Place” covered in ants. But, as my girls pointed out, ants like a good read too. Indeed.

-- Sandra Tsing Loh is the author of “Mother on Fire.”


One of the best ways to read is to re-read. Because sometimes it requires too much courage to pick up a new book.

My literary hedges against depression:

“Brideshead Revisited,” by Evelyn Waugh. I love these characters as if they were my own crazy family. Why would I, from a clan of buttoned-down Dutch Protestants, be so attracted to insane English Catholics? I only know that when I am low, the mysteries of the loves (and hates!) in this book fill me with hope. And Waugh’s similes are magician’s tricks.

“The Complete Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” by Arthur Conan Doyle. Just the sight of this fat book lifts my spirits. In the days when I could hide when I felt low (before motherhood, before e-mail, before cellphones), this was what I would repair to bed with. These days I just sneak in a story or two.

Then, when I am too depressed to get out of bed, I read cookbooks.

-- Sonja Bolle, former Los Angeles Times book editor, writes Word Play, a column about children’s books.


It was Camilo who gave me the book. He is dead now. He was killed at the start of the Nicaraguan insurrection that toppled the 45-year-old Somoza dynasty. We were both young. We were both aware that our country was in trouble and that all the civic avenues to change were closed: Elections were rigged, and the military captured, tortured and killed anyone who dared express opposition. Camilo showed up one day at my office with a worn-out copy of Frantz Fanon’s “The Wretched of the Earth.” The Algerian author wrote of colonialism and struggle, but his book made me realize that we Nicaraguans had no alternative but to fight the dictator. The words on the page were like hands shaking me awake. The images I had collected from living in a country where social injustice and dictatorship had cut short so many lives came galloping into my mind. I knew I couldn’t remain indifferent. Shortly afterward, I joined the Sandinista guerrillas. I remember that book often. I remember the rage but also the courage it made me feel. Books have the power to be the light we are seeking at crucial moments in our lives. Reading helps us realize we are not alone, that we can change our circumstances and even achieve the impossible. I named my son Camilo in memory of the dead friend who gave me that book.

-- Gioconda Belli is the author of “Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand, a novel of Adam and Eve.”


Book City

I’m a reader because I grew up in Los Angeles,

most readerly city I know

A city of bookshops then,

all those sun-faded, two-tone bookmarks with no area codes:

raffish Papa Bach,

stately Hunter’s,

the Duttonses, of blessed memory,

Acres of Books, a penicillin colony in every binding,

once-starry Stanley Rose,

the Crowns,

bottom-feeders, but they bought the back page every week,

righteous Midnight Special,

those mayflies, Urban Inversion and Butler Gabriel,

quixotic L.A.: The Bookstore,

and Chatterton’s, prostrate at the end

But no less a city of bookstores now:

savvy Diesel,

impossible Metropolis,

Williams’ of San Pedro, 100 this year,

Book Soup and Village, ineradicable,

Libreria Martinez, barbershop no more,

books and music in sublime Counterpoint,

newborn Stories of Echo Park,

and Skylight,

soul risen from Chatterton’s body

All these and so many others

sanctuaries from speed

havens for mavens

like the city

clinging to a strand.

-- David Kipen, author of “The Schreiber Theory,” directs the NEA’s Big Read program.


Iread because it is one of the very few satisfying escapes from reality that isn’t fattening and doesn’t destroy brain cells.

-- Amy Koss is the author of the young adult novel “Side Effects.”


When I was a kid, the greatest thing about reading was that it made the world so much more sympathetic. The bully around the corner, the mouthy girl in class, the recluse nobody talked to -- I understood them all as composites of characters who lived in the stories of Louisa May Alcott, Beverly Cleary, Charles Dickens, Norman Juster, Aesop, the brothers Grimm. Every two weeks, my mother took me to a library to stock up on a new set of books, and I looked forward to those visits the way I looked forward to parties or social engagements. The library was where I made my best friends.

There’s a genuine community of reading out there that transcends a lot of differences. Even if you’re into James Baldwin and somebody else is into William F. Buckley, you can always argue ideas. Curiosity and critical thinking put you in the same house, if not always the same room.

Much is made about the cultural relevance of books, about whether they speak to a child’s background or view of the world. I understand the concern. But books are ultimately about stimulating imagination and broadening a worldview. In my South-Central neighborhood, Dickens more than did the job.

-- Erin Aubry Kaplan is a Los Angeles journalist.


Ithink of my car as a literary tabernacle. Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes news, but most often my automobile is where I lose myself in the written word. I savored nearly all of Anne Tyler’s novels on audiotapes, and readily recall the vivid scenes I imagined listening to Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full.” I drove to San Diego once with Amy Tan reading to me from “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” heading back home with John Updike’s “Rabbit” Angstrom and friends as companions. My favorite audio reading experience, however, was listening to an unabridged recording of A. Scott Berg’s biography, “Lindbergh.” For several weeks, Charles Lindbergh and I prepared for his New York-to-Paris journey together. The day his small plane finally touched down in Paris, I was so choked up, I actually had to pull off the freeway.

-- Barbara Isenberg is the author of “Conversations with Frank Gehry.”


When I moved here in the summer of 1987 from the East Coast, several friends warned me: “You’ll be miserable. You read; they don’t.”

They were partially right -- I was miserable -- but not for the reason they assumed: I missed snow. But the reading was never a problem. They -- we -- read plenty here. The libraries are well-used, now more than ever in this economy. And people who can afford it continue to buy books.

“It’s Hollywood,” one of the East Coasters cackled. “It’s all those agents and directors and producers, sending their assistants out to find books they can turn into movies. They’re not reading. Their grunts are.”

Those folks probably do account for some percentage of area sales. But the myriad folks reading as they sit on park lawns, the ones with their noses in books while they wait for the takeout lines to inch forward at lunch? The population of readers on coffeehouse patios? They can’t all be development gremlins.

So, fine: We’ll own up to the have-a-nice-day stereotype, but don’t try slapping us with “they don’t read.” We do. We just have the option of doing it outdoors for more months of the year.

-- Karen Grigsby Bates is an L.A.-based correspondent for NPR News.


We read to free ourselves from the grind and the misery and big ticking time-bomb questions of life. We read for the same reason we walk alone in the woods or squeeze our ears between headphones. We all need contemplative time, time away, time in another world altogether. For me, that happens when I pick up a good book -- or, for that matter, a good newspaper.

-- T.C. Boyle is the author of “The Women: A Novel.”


When I was 9, I was sent to a boarding school run by Catholic nuns. I hated it and missed my family terribly. But going home was not an option because my father was working in an oil field in Assam. I cried myself to sleep every night and awoke with a hollow feeling in my stomach. The only time I felt happy was when I borrowed a book from the library and escaped into it. Reading helped me survive that traumatic year. By the time my father was posted to a big city and I returned home, I was hooked.

-- Chitra Divakaruni is the author of “Palace of Illusions.”


Ionce had a stepfather with a head like a badly stitched football, who would get drunk and leer and say, “If I were a gopher, I’d gopher you.” Or sing “Pennies from Heaven,” because my nickname was Penny at the time. I had a boyfriend who clacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth and made the most unnerving sound. I had a whole set of relatives who loved to start sentences with, “The trouble with YOU is ... !”

The world I found myself in didn’t come up to my standards. I was 11 at the time. So I went to the library and found Commander Edward Ellsberg and went deep-sea diving, or Elizabeth Enright, whose Melendy family knew how to have fun with each other, or Kate Seredy, whose Hungarian kids rode magnificent horses across the Magyar plains and never fell off.

Now, if my life doesn’t come up to my standards, I have no one to blame but myself. I still open a book.

-- Carolyn See is the author of “Golden Days” and “The Handyman.”


Reading as lifeline, that’s how it was in my childhood home, all of us immigrants reaching for something in the written word. My mother, sitting on the porch, slicing open the pages of a new French novel, sheltered in the language as much as in the story; my father, learning English slang in Life magazine; my Russian grandfather, a czarist to his dying day, finding his vanished homeland in an expat newspaper, the gritty pages printed in letters my American friends couldn’t understand.

When it came my turn to read, I still remember the feeling of betrayal. “See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.” Seriously? But then came E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mark Twain and Harper Lee, Kurt Vonnegut and J.R.R. Tolkien, and I got it, I understood, you’re sitting right there, reading, and you’re anywhere, everywhere.

-- Veronique de Turenne writes the blog Here in Malibu at