Why I Read

From a young age, some people know what they want to be when they grow up—firefighters, doctors, or paleontologists. Not me. I already was what I wanted to be—a reader. Of course, I didn’t know anyone who did that for a living. But it seemed like a good full-time job for me. Holding a book in my hands allowed me to embrace my world perfectly.

I was an only child, quiet, dreamy, easily frightened, and often bored. There was not much to entertain children in Tangier, then a seedy city in northern Morocco scorned by King Hassan II, who ruled from Rabat. The streets were disgusting—roadways cracked, and along their margins untreated sewage coursed freely and garbage lay uncollected. Of playgrounds we knew little. The cinemas, reeking of hashish, had been abandoned to Kung Fu and other B movies.

But when I returned home, it was to the companionship of my books. Perhaps reading was in my genes. My mother’s brother, who loved crossword puzzles, was always scouring entries in the dictionary. My great-aunt Ledicia — Tita Licy — spent her lonely hours in studying the intricacies of British monarchical lines.

We spoke Spanish at home, sprinkled with Haketía, the language of the Sephardi diaspora in Morocco, but my voracious reading was mostly in French—the Countess de Ségur and first translations of Enid Blyton, and then, as I undertook a good traditional lycée education, Balzac, Flaubert, and Zola. At 14, I remember gulping down, with only a scarce grasp of its meaning, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, a work of Epicurean philosophy, just to keep up with my close friend Elvire.

Gradually, I came to see these books as more than compelling stories. The many tongues at my disposal began to feel like an imaginary playground. From my mother, I had inherited a philological bent, and gleefully traced Latin roots in romance languages, and Semitic ones in Hebrew and Arabic. I prized the exacting requirements of a well-spoken language, the rules redeeming the arbitrary chaos of the universe. I savored the accuracy carried by a rich vocabulary: how seemingly random vocables described intricate feelings, or the nuances of a landscape, or the many shades of an emotion.

Over time, I came to understand that these books were not naturally occurring stories but carefully constructed works. I was being transformed from a reader into a critic, in a conversation with authors in French, in English, in Spanish, and in Arabic. As I moved from one foreign country to another, the writers were my welcoming committee and offered me solace that I could not yet find in family and friends. As I would with people, I loved trying to understand how texts worked. Reading then, has been my practice and my sanctuary, a state of mind and a season of the soul.

I hope you, dear reader, will encounter and share some of that pleasure here.