Take a look.

Last week, I caught the end of one of Maureen Corrigan’s book reviews on Fresh Air and found myself spiraling toward an existential crisis. I guess I was due for one. The review gushed about Sarah Waters’s new novel, The Paying Guests, but I don’t think the book itself has anything to do with this crisis. It’s about books in general.

Like most existential crises, this one fired a couple of warning shots before I was gunned down by a steady stream of bullets all whining “I just want to read books.”

I had just finished reading the last of Toni Morrison’s novels and was feeling a little like an orphan, but I think this thing really started awhile ago. Earlier this year, I started teaching a literature course at a local university. The section I teach meets on Saturday mornings for five weeks. One of the assigned texts is Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. This is not my favorite play nor is Miller my favorite playwright. In this course we also read A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry and I get way more excited about the Youngers than I do about the Lomans. However, this summer, I found myself refereeing a debate about whether Willy Loman dies in an accident or by suicide at the end of Death of a Salesman. My students were passionate, especially considering we were in a classroom at 9:30 on a sunny Saturday morning in late summer. They were quoting from the play. They were raising their voices, not exactly at each other. Nobody was angry; they were just fired up by the story. The next week, they got equally fired up about the clash of personalities that occurs when the Youngers are trying to decide how to spend their insurance money in A Raisin in the Sun.

I usually have a lot of fun teaching, but I’ve never had more fun than when I was teaching that literature class this past summer.

Then I read a silly list on Buzzfeed about how to figure out what you should be doing in life. There were seven questions allegedly designed to help one determine one’s calling. One of the questions was “What makes you forget to eat and poop?” If sleeping isn’t a viable response, then literature is always the answer.

I have loved books for as long as I can remember. When I was a little kid, my mom would sometimes make me clean my bedroom. I suppose this is a story told by many people with moms. I would take the vacuum cleaner into my bedroom, turn it on, and sit down next to it and read a book. It sounded like I was cleaning my room, which I thought was enough to fool my mom. (It wasn’t.) Many of my childhood stories are about reading. I wasn’t socially aware enough to know that the other kids were insulting me when they called me a nerd. I thought it was just what you called people like me, who liked books and were generally good at school.

In a lot of ways, I’m still that little kid who wants to read books instead of clean, only “cleaning” is now a myriad of other obligations. I don’t know what it is exactly that I get from books, but it has something to do with words. Sometimes I find my mind drifting when I’m reading and I realize I’m just staring at the way words look printed on the page. If the paper is particularly high quality, textured instead of glossy and smooth, then the words almost sink into the paper. I like how type looks, how the letters all fit together perfectly in each word, as if each letter were made especially for that word.

But I also like stories. Nothing has influenced the way I situate myself in the world more than literature has. The way Corrigan was talking about The Paying Guests felt so familiar to me. I could understand her reactions, her excitement, and the sense of becoming more fully human that reading Waters’s book gave her, even though I haven’t read it or any of Waters’s other works. There is a commonality in the experience of loving a book.

There’s no way to say “it’s from a novel” when someone asks you about your tattoo without sounding pompous, but it’s true. I have one tattoo and it’s from a book. It’s mostly about my sister, but it’s no accident that it’s from a book. Tattoos are forever. So are sisters and so are books.