Views / Toronto

Getting the book-bee bug creates a lasting inner life

Columnist Uzma Jalaluddin is drawn to a bookcase like a moth to a flame and is hopeful that a love of reading will be passed down to her sons.

The John Robarts Library at the University of Toronto was an emporium of wonders to Star columnist Uzma Jalaluddin.

ColinMcConnell / Torstar News Service Order this photo

The John Robarts Library at the University of Toronto was an emporium of wonders to Star columnist Uzma Jalaluddin.

I love books. This will come as a surprise to no one. I teach English, and spend spare moments looking up new books to read. I have even started writing books of my own. I’m the nerd who uses Amazon to buy books, not toilet paper.

I’ve tried to pass along this passion to everyone around me, especially my kids. But they read and consume books differently than I do.

Reading is my first love, and I am loyal. My husband understands this; his first gift to me was a used copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. My kids enjoy reading but not in the same way. Their love is divided between video games, drawing and sports.

To this day, whenever I see shelves filled with books, whether in a mall or someone’s house, I stop what I’m doing and wander over, a book-bee drawn to the sweet nectar of the written word.

And I’m always reading.

I grew up frequenting nearby Toronto public libraries. I read so much, there was no other way my parents could keep up with my demand. In university I haunted libraries, especially Robarts at the University of Toronto. Whenever my friends had a research project that required a trip to the stacks, I played tour guide and showed them how to use the catalogue and computer checkout.

Today, my kids prefer to buy the books they read, and they collect series, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Magnus Chase. They also reread their favourites over and over. This is OK, but I know that the true allure of libraries is their power of possibility. I love to wander library aisles, on the prowl for my next favourite book or author.

I have always read widely, and my tastes have changed with me. Young adult selection was limited in the ’80s and early ’90s, but I read the usual suspects: Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Christopher Pike and R.L Stine.

I also read a lot of Canadian writers. Not just everything L.M. Montgomery wrote (The Blue CastleA Tangled Web! All the Anne books!) but my first introduction to humour writing was through the great Canadian comic authors. Gordon Korman’s earlier work had me in stitches (Losing Joe’s PlaceOur Man WestonA Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag) as well as the entire canon of Robertson Davies and Donald Jack. I love The Resurrection of Joseph Bourne by Jack Hodgins. I read Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Timothy Findley and Sinclair Ross.

I read Agatha Christie and Louise Penny. Then I discovered comic sci-fi/fantasy novels and spent most of high school finding my true sarcastic voice through Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett and my all-time favourite, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and later, Jasper Fforde.

The British invasion continued with Jane Austen and led to funny romantic comedies such as Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary.

I developed a fondness for South Asian voices in university — Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Arundhati Roy, and later, as a young mother, The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesakeby Jhumpa Lahiri. That was the first book I read that wasn’t just a window into how other people lived, but a mirror into the shared experience of being a desi second generation immigrant.

So many books, each corresponding to a different stage of life, so that my own modest library is a biographical timeline. But my real collection is stored on my library cards and on the shelves of the hundreds of libraries that dot the GTA.

This summer I visited Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge. I dragged my kids and husband and some friends too, and wandered the shelves of the independent book seller. I chatted with the teenage cashier as she rung up my order — The Maze Runner for Mustafa, a Batman and Robin graphic novel for Ibrahim and a few books for me. She told me that Uxbridge has 64 active book clubs.

The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we read on the page, they become a part of who we are. I always encourage my students to read. “Reading books makes you smarter and better-looking,” I tell them, only half-joking.

Books let us dream about the lives of others, and the life we want to lead. To me, they have always been the very stuff of life. I hope one day my kids will feel the same way too.

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