Our Reading Lives

How Books Have Made Me Brave

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This is a guest post from Abigail Clarkin. Abigail is a recent graduate from the University of Rhode Island who can often be found holding a book in one hand and an ice cream cone in the other. When she is not devouring stories (or dessert), Abigail enjoys working at a charming, small library in Rhode Island, training for her third half marathon, jamming out at folk concerts, and writing poetry about growing up with eight brothers and sisters.

Books have made me brave.

Today proves it. The restaurant is warmer than the brisk windiness outside, the exposed lightbulbs overhead leaving the atmosphere relaxed and dimly lit. My hands are sweating and I wipe them across my jeans. I can’t help but hope that the lighting makes it hard to tell that I am blushing nervously because there, sitting across from me, is one of my favorite authors: Katherine Reay. And this meeting itself means I have been brave.

In the spring of my undergraduate sophomore year, my community college flew me out to Chicago to receive an academic scholarship. As the seventh of nine children, traveling while growing up was mostly reserved for family reunions, weddings, and graduations. I associated travel with two things: 1. long, loud (noise often provided, unregretted, by myself), claustrophobic hours in the van with my parents and many siblings, or 2. the fear of going miles out of my comfort zone to somewhere new.

When it was up to me, I spent the years using my preferred and most beloved mode of transportation: reading.

Cover of Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine ReayPerhaps that was why I fell in love with the book Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. The main character, a journalism graduate student named Sam, has lived a life that has not given her many reasons to trust others or expect stability and love. One thing she can trust to protect her and remain unchanging in her life is literature.

During my flight to Chicago, I felt like Sam as I tried reading to calm and distract myself. But even with my oldest sister joining me on this adventure, the nerves kicked in, and I couldn’t help thinking, I know nothing about this city. What if we get lost or wander into the wrong part of the city or…And as the plane flew higher into the clouds, I descended further into my worry. Hours later, Chicago loomed up out of the fog. I couldn’t see the tops of the skyscrapers as our car slid between their bases, but I still knew the buildings were terrifyingly tall beyond my comprehension.

A day later, Katherine smiles at me from across the table in a Mediterranean restaurant. As she asks me about school and my writing, I feel the nerves that have gathered in my gut over the weeks and miles leading up to this lunch, in anticipation of finally meeting her, relax completely. She is kind, even when I stumble through a response, completely enamoured by her poise and humor not only on the page but in person. She shares about her unexpected journey to publication as I attempt to nonchalantly try octopus for the first time.

It is when my sister and I wander through the city later that day that the skyscrapers seem to shrink down. I can breathe easy. Meeting Katherine reminds me I am not visiting for the first time: I am revisiting. After all, one of my favorite characters, Sam, has lived her life here.

It is because of books that I then take my first Uber to Lincoln Park Zoo where Sam and her dear friend Alex walked together. It is because of books that my sister and I walk through unfamiliar neighborhoods to peek in at the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder where Sam and Alex shared dinner. It is because of books that I summed up the courage in the first place to reach out all those weeks ago to Katherine and ended up meeting her for lunch.

Abigail Clarkin and Katherine Reay

In the book, Sam does not forever retreat into her books in the face of all things. Instead, she finds that she cannot simply live through her fictional characters but must learn to step out of the pages and discover the world for herself as well. Books have made me brave, I decide, looking back at photos of Katherine and I posing outside after our meal. Looking closer, I smile at what I see: in a city no longer shrouded in fog, I am a young woman no longer shrouded in fear.